As we have established many times, I am in no way a vegan. But when I was teaching cookery, we once ran a Mexican class that consisted mainly of vegetarians with a few vegans in the mix, and my boss experimented with this recipe for vegan feta cheese. I’ve always been a bit wary of substituting a ‘free-from’ version of something for the real deal, because setting up the comparison often results in disappointment. But I literally could not stop eating this stuff when it was presented to me. Then I forgot about it, because I have no real need for vegan cheese substitutes on a day-to-day basis.
But, over a year later, I was throwing a vegan dinner party, and remembered the existence of this almond feta. I decided to give it a go. It was just as tasty as I remembered. Everyone else seemed to love it too, and I’ve made it a couple of times since.
I’m not going to pretend this is a like-for-like substitute for feta, because obviously it tastes different, being made from almonds rather than dairy. But it does have the same salty, savoury, addictive joy about it. It’s wonderfully crumbly and versatile. The almonds, when broken down like this, are surprisingly creamy. Here, I’ve shown it crumbled on top of a salad (because just photographed in its little dish it would look a little uninspiring, just as photographing an untouched lump of real feta would). But you can use it just as you would the regular cheese: it’s great with all sorts of salads, or roasted vegetables, or sprinkled over eggs, or baked into a frittata. You can make up a dish of it and keep it in your fridge happily for a couple of weeks, pulling it out whenever you need it.
This recipe is adapted from the version we used when I was teaching, but I’m afraid I have no idea where that was from originally. Do shout if you know!
This does take a bit of time, but it’s largely completely passive time, where you can happily leave the nuts to do their thing and go and get on with your life.
200g blanched almonds
90 ml lemon juice
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus a little extra for the baking dish
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1½ teaspoons salt
125 ml water
First, soak the almonds. Place them in a bowl and pour over boiling water. Leave to soak for an hour.
Drain the almonds, throwing away the water. Pop them into a food processor of other blender with the lemon juice, oil, garlic, salt, and 125ml water. Blitz thoroughly until you have a relatively smooth paste.
Line a sieve with muslin, a clean tea towel, or a coffee filter. Put the almond paste into the lined sieve and leave to drain for at least three hours (or leave it overnight if you like).
Preheat your oven to 180C/160C fan/ gas 3. Lightly oil a small baking dish or tin. Pop the almond mixture in, smooth the surface, and lightly smear a little more olive oil over the top. Bake for around 25 minutes, or until starting to turn golden. You can use the almond feta warm or cold from the fridge, as you wish.
Christmas is over, and I have spent the last week living on chocolate, mince pies, and various forms of potato. Obviously this is brilliant, but I am starting to feel like I should supplement this excellent diet with some food with nutritional value. Don’t get me wrong, I am still going to enjoy working through my Christmas chocolate and all of the traditionally carb-and-cheese-laden foods of the season. I am just going to punctuate it with some fruits and vegetables.
It’s still perfectly possible to have delicious, colourful, healthy meals as we head towards the end of the year. This dish makes use of plenty of seasonal ingredients that are thriving right now, including beetroot, kale, and, if you fancy, mackerel.
The sweetness and sharpness of the citrus here contrast beautifully with the earthiness of the beetroot, and the bright orange, rich purple, and deep green in this dish will bring a bit of life to any winter table. You can make a big batch of this salad and keep it in the fridge to eat alone or with your chosen additional protein for satisfying lunches or light dinners.
This will serve 4-6 people (depending on how hungry you are!) as a side dish.
If you want to use this as a base for a main course, it’s great with pan-fried mackerel fillets (or fish of your choice) or topped with generous discs of goats’ cheese.
Clementines, satsumas, or oranges would also work well in place of tangerines.
100g blanched hazelnuts
4 medium raw beetroot
200g uncooked quinoa, or a 250g cooked quinoa pouch if you prefer – any colour is fine
a good bunch of cavolo nero or kale stalks
2 tbsp finely chopped fresh tarragon
plenty of extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and pepper, to season
Set your oven to 220C/ 200C fan/ gas 6. Spread your hazelnuts out on a lipped baking tray and pop them in the oven to toast for five minutes while it heats up.
Meanwhile, peel your beetroot and cut them into halves (or quarters if they are particularly large). Your hazelnuts should be toasted by now, so take them out of the oven and pop them into a bowl. Put your beetroot on the baking tray and toss it with a generous glug of olive oil, then season generously. Roast for 15-20 minutes, or until cooked through.
While your beetroot cooks, cook your quinoa according to pack instructions (if you’re not using a pre-cooked pouch). Tear your kale leaves from their thick stalks into rough ribbons, and pop them in a large bowl. Sprinkle them with a pinch of sea salt, then massage the leaves for a couple of minutes until they seem darker and shrink down a little.
Peel your tangerines, then slice them into rounds and put them in the same bowl as the kale. Add the chopped tarragon and cooked quinoa. Finally, roughly chop your hazelnuts, and mix them in. Finish it all off with a couple of tbsps of olive oil stirred through, and taste and season.
Serve the salad alone for a lighter meal, or top with fish or discs of goats cheese.
A recipe post with a difference, this week: this black quinoa salad was inspired by Wild Honey. Wild Honey are a fantastic independent Oxford business, selling fresh, local, and organic products. Run by Matt and Jessica, it’s all about the local community and economy, with a real focus on great suppliers. They mainly sell food and drink, but they also sell supplements and beauty products. Obviously for me though, it’s all about the food.
I’m going to be doing a few recipe posts inspired by ingredients from Wild Honey. There are two Wild Honey shops, and both are glorious treasure troves of delicious, intriguing products. Yes, you can buy excellent peaches and honey and chocolate and all sorts of the usual things there, but you can also find some lesser known delights on their shelves. It’s those products that I want to focus on. I’m going to develop a few recipes that should hopefully give people a few ideas on what you can do with some of their more unusual ingredients.
Hence, black quinoa. Yes yes, I know, this blog is usually all about the baked goods. But even I sometimeseathealthystuff to break up the endless parade of cakes.
Black quinoa is like the exciting older cousin of regular white quinoa. It’s darker, stronger in flavour, and has a more interesting crunchy texture. Like regular quinoa, it’s a complete protein, containing fibre, vitamin E, iron, phosphorous, magnesium and zinc. It’s also gluten free, low in fat, and high in protein.
There’s no need to be intimidated by black quinoa if you’re unfamiliar with it. It’s just as simple to cook as regular quinoa: rinse, simmer, drain if needed. Once it’s cooked, there are loads of things you can do with it. If you make up a big batch, it’s great to have throughout the week. It’s very versatile: you can have it in salads, with curries, topped with roasted vegetables…
This black quinoa salad also contains raw broccoli and kale. Wait, wait, don’t leave. I promise you, it’s really tasty. Especially when spiked with a creamy tahini dressing, and finished with shining pomegranate and crispy fried halloumi. You could also switch it up in a dozen different ways. It would work great with cauliflower instead of broccoli, and I think adding a handful of toasted nuts would also be an excellent idea. You could leave off the halloumi if you want, but… I mean, any excuse for halloumi.
I would really encourage you to pop to Wild Honey for black quinoa if you live in the Oxford area, or to another health food shop if not. You could also buy it online. It’s really beautiful in this salad, and more interesting than regular quinoa, with a lovely complex flavour. That said, this would also work perfectly well with white or red quinoa if that’s what you’ve got in the cupboard.
I never, ever measure anything in cups normally. However, it does work easily here, because the quinoa : water ratio is volume based. You don’t need a special measuring cup or anything – just grab any old mug, fill it with quinoa, and that’s your measurement. You then need three times as much water as quinoa.
This salad feeds 4-6 people, depending on whether it’s a main or a side, and how hungry those people are.
1 mug black quinoa
3 mugs water
1 head broccoli
1 handful/ ½ pack kale
generous pinch of sea salt, and a good grinding of pepper
juice of half a lemon
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
for the tahini dressing
2 cloves garlic, crushed
juice of half a lemon
1 pack halloumi
handful of pomegranate seeds
Put the quinoa in a sieve, and rinse well for a minute or so. Pop it in a saucepan with the water, bring to the boil with a pinch of salt, then simmer gently, stirring now and then, for around 25 minutes. Check it after 20 to see if it’s cooked – you’re looking for the grains to seem like they have popped open, showing a kernel, and to be largely soft but with a bit of texture and bite. If needed, drain it, but it will probably have absorbed all the water.
While the quinoa is cooking, break the broccoli into rubble (i.e. the tiniest little florets possible) and pop it in a big bowl. Shred the kale, removing any tough stalks, and add it to the broccoli. Add a big pinch of salt, pepper, the lemon juice, and the olive oil. Mix everything together, and then get your hands in and massage it all for a minute or two, or until the kale shrinks, softens, and darkens.
For the tahini dressing, mix all the ingredients together, taste, and season.
Cut your halloumi into thick slices, then fry it in a non-stick frying pan for a couple of minutes per side in a little oil, until golden.
Mix the cooked, drained quinoa into the broccoli and kale mixture. Pop it all into the dish you want to serve in, drizzle with the tahini dressing, sprinkle with the pomegranate seeds, and finish with the halloumi.
I am a complete animal obsessive – the kind of person who will stop people in the street so that I can talk to and pet their dogs (while ignoring the human attached to the dog because talking to those who can talk back is too much effort). When people ask me if I am a dog or a cat person I say I adore both, which is true: my brother and I grew up with three cats and two dogs in the house, and I love them more than most humans. That said, I think I am a cat person at heart. They are emotionally complex, tempestuous and smart and sulky, which apparently appeals to me in an animal. This is why I have let our cat-who-is-not-our-cat, Freddie, massively emotionally manipulate me until I am basically a slave who exists to serve her.
When Freddie first showed up at our door, she was all tentative and nervy, needing cajoling to convince her that we were good, cat-loving, unintimidating folk. We’re way, way past that point now, though. She has played James and I like fiddles. Without even realising how we got here, we’re at the point where if I start to eat any sort of human food near her she will come and try to put her nose in it to share it with me, and I have to actively push her away if I do not want to lose my breakfast to a feline.
These days I have to be extremely careful when I do my food photography. If I set everything up and then turn my back for a second to pick up my camera, that cat is across the room and jumping onto my little set like an overjoyed kid being let out of a classroom and into a playground. The problem is that she has discovered that human food is more delicious than animal food, and now she’s not interested in anything else.
Anyway, luckily cats are obligate carnivores and not really interested in cucumber, so this little dish was spared the threat of Freddie’s tongue. This salad is a weird mish-mash of different cuisines, but it’s light and summery and only takes ten minutes to make and, hey, I think it’s tasty and it didn’t get eaten by the cat, so here it is.
Notes: This should feed 3-4 people as a side dish, or two people as the base for a main meal with, for instance, some grilled chicken or fish.
Don’t skip the black onion seeds! They may sound like an odd ingredient if you are not used to them, but they are delicious and they make this salad, adding an interesting bitterness. You can get them from large supermarkets or local Asian shops – if you live in Oxford, you can get them in most stores up and down the Cowley Road.
1/2 small red onion
juice of 1 lime
pinch of sugar
salt and pepper
1 whole cucumber
1 small pack coriander
2 tsp black onion/nigella seeds/kalonji
First, finely dice your red onion. Put the onion in a mixing bowl, and squeeze over the juice of the lime, then add a pinch of sugar and some salt and pepper (bearing in mind that feta is very salty, so you don’t want to add too much salt at this stage). Mix it all around and let the onion sit in the mixture.
Next, halve your cucumber, scrape out the seeds (I use a teaspoon for this), and dice the remaining flesh. Crumble your feta cheese. Chop your coriander, stalks and all, as finely as you can be bothered to. Add your cucumber, feta, coriander, and black onion seeds to your red onion, give it all a good stir, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Job done.
Autumn seems to have come suddenly this year. Our lovely, unexpected Indian summer has made the sudden shortening of the days rather startling, and I was dismayed to wake up at my standard 6.30am last week to see darkness outside instead of the bright dawns to which I have become accustomed. I don’t know why, but this surprises me every year, and I can’t quite remember how I got through the darker days last time around. Although I’m generally cheered by the inevitable slide into autumnal crumbles and stews, I felt like having one last go at a bright and sunshiney recipe before succumbing. And here it is.
In case you missed my last blog post, I’ll explain that I am collaborating with Savse, who make delicious smoothies packed full of healthy treats. I’ve tried lots of their range over the past couple of weeks, and this Super Orange smoothie is one of my favourites. It’s got a great balance of sweetness from mango and sharpness from citrus, undercut by the earthiness of carrots. I thought this sunshine drink would be great in a loosely Mexican-inspired dish, with fresh fish, creamy avocados, bright limes, punchy red chillies, and plenty of coriander.
The sweetness of the smoothie is a great partner to the spicy chilli in this dish, and it’s wonderful with the flavours of coriander and lime. I keep glancing out of the window as I write this, and although the temperature has started to drop, everything’s still wildly green and the sky is bright and clear. This is the perfect light meal for these last days of sunshine, or a great healthy pick-me-up for when it gets grey.
Notes: You can use whatever grains you like here – I used a mixture of brown rice and quinoa because it was what I had on hand, but either of those alone would do, as would something like freekeh.
The quantities here feed two people, but the dish can easily be scaled up for a crowd and served as a sharing platter.
150g quinoa (or whatever grain you like)
1 ripe avocado
1 small mango
1 small red chilli, de-seeded
1/2 bunch coriander, finely chopped
juice 1/2 lime
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
for the dressing
1/2 250ml bottle Savse Super Orange 1 clove crushed garlic
1/2 bunch coriander, finely chopped
juice 1/2 lime
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
At least an hour before you want to eat, prep your prawns by removing their shells and digestive tracts, then put them in a bowl with your smoothie and garlic. Mix, cover, and refrigerate.
When you’re ready to start preparing the rest of the dish, put your quinoa on to cook according to pack instructions – it should take around 20 minutes. While that’s cooking, heat a griddle pan with a glug of oil until it’s just smoking. Halve, peel, and de-stone your avocado, season, and then grill for about 1 minute per side, or until you have char-marks. Remove from pan, slice, and set aside.
To make your salsa, peel and dice your mango, de-seed and dice your chilli, chop your coriander (chop the whole bunch because you need the rest for the dressing), juice your lime, and mix all these things together with the oil. Season to taste.
To make your dressing, simply combine all your ingredients. I find the easiest way to do this is to put them all in a tupperware container or jar with a lid and shake. Taste and season. Drain your quinoa well, then mix in the dressing.
To cook your prawns, remove from the marinade and season. Wipe out and reheat your grill pan with some new oil. When it’s just smoking, grill your prawns until gently charred on the outside and warm, pink, and opaque all the way through. Serve your quinoa topped with the avocado, mango salsa, and prawns.
This is obviously not a health food blog. This is a celebratory blog – an equal opportunities blog, where a glorious sponge cake decorated with fudgy frosting is given the same happy reception as a bright salad studded with seeds and fresh fruit. I have no personal need to focus on ‘free from’ food, I am far from a vegetarian, and I believe in eating and enjoying a huge range of things. Really, I just want things that taste good.
That’s why I was delighted when Savse got in touch and asked me if I’d like to participate in a collaboration with them, using their smoothies to devise new recipes. One of the rather lovely things about this sort of task is that you get sent products to experiment with and, lucky old me, these smoothies are completely delicious. They are cold-pressed and natural, with no added sugar, so great to have as a little energy booster and a helping hand towards your five-a-day.
I’ve started with a savoury recipe, which is a little more of a challenge with a fruit based smoothie, but one which I had lots of fun experimenting with. This duck dish is great because it looks fancy if you want to impress someone, but is actually full of really simple processes. The amount served here is enough for a light main course – think elegant lunch or a dinner after which you would like to eat a generous pudding – but could easily be bulked up if you were hungry by cutting the potatoes into chunky wedges instead of cute little cubes.
The thing that really makes the dish is the sauce. Everything else is tasty, but commonly found: pink duck breast with a meltingly crispy skin; golden little mouthfuls of salty potato; earthy-rich beetroot; delicate, fresh lamb’s lettuce. The sauce, though, is stuffed with intriguing flavours. Its base is the Savse Super Blue Smoothie, which is packed full of (deep breath) blueberry, kale, beetroot, spinach, blackcurrant, apple, strawberry, and orange. With all that going on, no wonder it makes such a rich and complex sauce. I took my inspiration for the recipe from the fact that lots of the ingredients in the smoothie are great tried-and-tested partners for duck – blueberry, beetroot, spinach, orange – and went from there. Happily, after my recipe-testing session, the plates were practically licked clean.
Notes: The sauce is the key element of this dish, and it’s the thing you need to pay most attention to. Taste it as you are going along – I am giving rough guidelines in terms of ingredients here. Add more or less of anything to your own personal preference.
If you would prefer to make big chips rather than little potato cubes, you should par-boil them in salted boiling water for five minutes before oven-cooking them, otherwise they might not cook through in the time it takes to prepare the rest of the dish.
The quantities given here will serve two people.
2 duck breasts
2 pieces of pre-cooked vac-packed beetroot (or roast your own from raw if you’d rather)
1 large or 2 smaller potatoes
2 large handfuls of lamb’s lettuce (or another salad leaf of your choosing)
salt and pepper
for the sauce
2 garlic cloves
1 250ml bottle Savse Super Blue Smoothie 1 small glass red wine (or to taste)
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper
Heat your oven to 220C/200C fan/gas 6. Peel your potato, and dice it into little cubes. Slice your pre-cooked beetroot into rounds. Place the beetroot on one side of a roasting tray, the potato on the other, and drizzle both with oil. Season generously. Place in the oven to roast for around 20 minutes, or until the beetroot is darkened and crisped at the edges and the potatoes are golden and cooked through.
Season your duck breast and place it skin side down in a cold, non-stick frying pan. Do not add oil. Put the pan on a medium heat and let the fat under the skin of the duck slowly render down for about 10 minutes – the pan will fill with the natural duck fat and the skin will become golden and crisp. Check it every now and then to see it’s not burning. While this is happening, finely dice your shallot and crush your garlic. When you’re happy with your duck skin, turn the duck breast over and quickly brown it on the flesh side for 1 minute, and then put it on a roasting tray, skin up, in the oven with your potatoes and beetroot for 10 minutes. (Note: this should give you lovely pink duck, but obviously depends slightly on your oven and the thickness of your meat). When the duck is done, take it out of the oven and let it rest for at least 5, preferably 10, minutes, while you finish off the dish.
Wipe out the frying pan you used for the duck, heat a splash of oil on a medium heat, and soften your shallot. After 3-5 minutes, add your crushed garlic. Cook for 1 minute, then add your bottle of smoothie. Turn up the heat and reduce the liquid down. Add the wine, vinegar, and plenty of seasoning, as well as any juices from the resting duck. Keep tasting it and adjusting according to your preference. You’re looking for a thick, dark, glossy sauce.
Slice your rested duck and serve with crispy potatoes, roast beetroot, salad leaves, and a drizzle of sauce. Finish off by pouring the rest of the sauce over your duck.
So, the first week at a new school doesn’t really count, yes? I mean, you have to get through all the introductions and talks about where to find things, and you don’t know anyone, and you spend most of the time too scared and confused to take things in properly (please tell me that isn’t just me?), so it’s only in Week 2 when you can really expect to get a proper sense of your new routine. That’s what I told myself, anyway, to excuse the fact that during the first week I was so overwhelmed that I struggled to cook things I have been making for years without fuss or incident.
Week 2 was our first full week, and our group got to cook in the mornings, which was a massive relief for me as it means we leave school on time after dems at the end of the day and I get to catch a train which gets me home for 7.15pm instead of 8pm: believe me, when you have to go to bed at 10pm to get up at 5.30am, those extra 45 minutes make a world of difference. The morning trains are shockingly inconsistent. I wrote half of this on one that was delayed for 25 minutes and sat stock still near Radley for ages for no apparent reason, meaning that when I got to London I had to race to get to school, into my whites, and to the kitchen on time. But it’s all good. Really. Every time I get stressed or feel tired, I remind myself what I am getting to do and that I could still be at my old desk job, and then everything feels a bit better.
The only slight drawback to the brand new dawn of Week 2 is that this week it has decided to start raining. A lot. Last week was unseasonably, ridiculously beautiful, but now we’re settling into a standard rainy English October. Believe me, you can get properly wet on a 4.5 mile cycle through London. Soaked quite literally to the skin, through waterproofs. Monday was a bit of a dark day that saw me, dripping rainwater and smelling like a dog that’s swum through a river, crouched on the corridor floor of the train back to Oxford because there were no seats left.
Anyway, enough moaning. Let’s get on to the good stuff. The food.
Every week we will be cooking in a different table group of four, and we also rotate between three kitchens, so it really was all change on Monday. We had a different class teacher every single day for the first week and most of the second. So what with new people, new kitchens, and new teachers, it really feels like we’re getting to experience lots of different ways of working at the start of the course, which I am sure will stand us in good stead later.
I looked at the schedule for this week initially and thought ‘Ha, they don’t really expect us to make all that? In one session? When last week we struggled to get two salads done in three hours? Haaaa.’ Well, they did expect us to make all that. And it’s been great. Mostly. Our table of four has been working well together this week and it actually feels like we’ve been super-speedy. Well, in comparison to last week, anyway, which isn’t saying a great deal.
On Monday the dishes we made included a gorgeous sweet potato, chilli, and lime soup. Now, I know my bowl below doesn’t look so gorgeous, but that’s because I keep forgetting to take photos of my food before it’s tasted and so by the time I remembered all the crème fraiche which I had artfully drizzled on the top had been stirred in. But I doggedly decided to take a picture of it looking rubbish anyway to prove I had actually cooked something. See? I made a thing!
Below is my avocado, mozzarella, and tomato salad, which, er, I actually did serve like that. Too many olives, not enough centre height, oversized portion, too much dressing, clumsy and thick slices… I really need to work on my presentation. I can already tell that it’s going to be something I’m going to struggle with. I am not naturally dainty and precise: I am cackhanded, clumsy, and prone to panicking. I only realise how tense I have been in the school kitchens when it comes to plating up and my hands are literally shaking. This is why I could never be a TV chef (yes, that, and a thousand other reasons, I hear you cry).
On Wednesday our pastry was examined for the third time in two weeks. I may have had a slight ‘incident’ with this pastry that saw it somehow fly out of my hands and onto the floor. I still have no idea how this happened. But, in response to my panicked whisperings of ‘Oh f***, oh f***, oh f***’, our teacher that day shouted ‘Two second rule, it’s fine, pick it up and carry on!’, so carry on I did. I mean, it did get baked at 200C for ages afterwards so I hope that killed any floor bacteria. I ate quite a lot of it and I’m still alive. Anyway, flinging pastry onto the floor seems to be a great new technique, because this was my most successful attempt at pastry by far. My little quiche was the best thing I have yet made, and you have no idea how good it felt to get positive feedback. So I shall consider chucking future attempts at pastry onto the floor with gusto and confidence.
On Thursday, it was chicken. Much chicken. Many chickens. Chicken everywhere. We each fully jointed two chickens at the start of class (just, you know, gently easing us in), and I was once again reminded of one of my key discoveries at Leiths, which is this: yes, you may have been doing something for many years, but you’ve probably been doing it wrong. Okay, I’m exaggerating – not wrong, per se, but certainly not the Leiths way. I have jointed chickens before, but in a slightly haphazard ‘Ah, that’ll probably be alright. Where did I put my glass of wine?’ manner, which doesn’t really pass muster at culinary school. I mean, the Leiths way is very efficient and precise and I am glad I know it, but bloody hell, it was tricky at first. Lots of ‘cut here, definitely not here, rotate, disclocate, turn over, use this joint…’. I’m not good at IKEA shelves either.
Finally, on Friday, we each made a French omelette and a full roast pork lunch with all the trimmings as a table. The less said about my omelette, the better. Seriously, I’m not talking about it. The pork was a triumph, though, and made for a very delicious lunch indeed. We worked well as a team and completed the task with a minimal amount of fuss and panic. If you’d have told me at the start of last week that we’d have progressed so much in such a short space of time I would have had my doubts. But look!
Of course, it’s not all about me messing everything up in the kitchen. Oh no. We also get to see how it should be done properly.
We started the week on a dem high, with a session on vegetables from Heli and David. I mean, look at the spread at the top of the page. Beautiful, no? It was like being in an artisan greengrocer. A very informative and interactive artisan greengrocer. They made us countless recipes (as in, I literally can’t count – maybe ten?) and I feel like we only just scratched the surface of the subject. We also had a dem on sauces on Tuesday with Mike which began with the vital building blocks of making a roux and ended with us feasting (as much as you can feat on bitesize portions, anyway) on macaroni cheese, spaghetti carbonara, and chilli crab linguini, and a great chicken dem on Wednesday with the amazing Belinda – who was stunningly calm in the face of making seven or eight chicken dishes in a single afternoon.
Then, on Thursday, Ansobe taught us about the importance of organisation and multitasking by literally making three roast dinners with all the trimmings all at once, without having a panic attack (that last bit is where I would fall down). There was moist roast chicken, succulent roast pork, tender roast beef, and some perfectly cooked pigs in blankets, amongst other things. This was also, somehow, the first time I tried bread sauce, and it was glorious. I haven’t been avoiding it up until now, it just hasn’t come up in my life. I always thought it sounded a bit odd. Sauce made of… bread? That can’t be right, surely? Well, I was wrong. It was so right. I am sorry that I ever doubted bread sauce.
I think that by Friday the teachers sensed that we were reaching overload and needed a fairly kind afternoon dem, so Phil, working solo, demonstrated an array of delicious baked goods, including white bread, soda bread, foccacia, cookies, and brownies. There was a polite (ish) scrum at the end when he called us all up to the front for samples, and everything tasted wonderful.
So here I am on a Friday afternoon at the end of my second week of culinary school. I am typing this from an absolutely packed train, delicious brownies in my tummy and a lot of frozen chicken in my backpack, with two glorious free days stretching like a gentle river ahead of me. Of course, all I’m going to be doing all weekend is cooking. But at least no one will be marking me, and I can sing loudly and tunelessly to myself in my very own kitchen.
I hadn’t actually cooked a full roast by myself until I got to university. In my second year, I lived in a beaten-down student house with four friends, and had the run of the shabby old kitchen. The gas oven there was horrific – old and unreliable with uneven heat and prone to turning itself off for no particular reason – but the great thing about roasting huge lumps of meat is that they’re not too precious about things like consistent oven temperature.
My best friend, Annis, and I once decided to host a pre-Christmas dinner there before everyone went home for the holidays. We walked up the road to the supermarket and bought so much stuff that we had to take the trolley back to the house with us because we had no hope of carrying it otherwise. In the end, there were seventeen people crammed into our little house, eating food off whatever random assortment of china, plastic, and paper plates we could find and drinking very cheap wine. We tried to make it look Christmassy.
The humble roast chicken is still my favourite. Yes, beef and pork and lamb are all special and delicious, but for me, you can’t beat roast chicken. It’s cheap, easy, and customisable. Everyone likes it (um, except vegetarians – sorry guys), whereas I have friends who object to beef, pork, and lamb. Best of all: leftovers. I always buy a bigger chicken than we need, to ensure that when we’ve eaten I get to pick the carcass clean (oddly satisfying) and fill a Tupperware box full of delicious meat for the next day.
A cold roast chicken sandwich is a glorious thing – lightly toasted fresh bread, a little bit of garlic mayo, salad leaves, maybe some bacon, and piled high with cold roast chicken. But this time, I fancied a change.
In defiance of the spectacularly non-existent summer we’ve had, I’ve made a light, summery salad, perfect for outdoor gatherings or long, lazy suppers on warm, light evenings. I mean, yes, in reality we ate this on the sofa under a blanket with the central heating on, but never mind. The salad still had that summery spirit I was hoping for.
Notes: I’ve made enough here to feed two people, but you can easily multiply it as needed. The quantities are pretty flexible – really, just use your common sense and base it on how much of everything you have lying around.
I’ve made the pesto from scratch here, because I think it tastes so much nicer and in a salad where pesto is a key ingredient it seemed worth it to me. But the pre-made stuff in a jar will do too if you’re pushed for time. I always do it by eye and it’s a very forgiving thing to make, so don’t worry too much about quantities.
200g cold roast chicken, torn into bite-size pieces
100g soft goats’ cheese, torn into lumps
4 apricots, stoned and halved
salad leaves of your choosing – here, I’ve used one of those mixed bags of watercress, spinach, and rocket
for the pesto (if making it from scratch)
1 large handful of basil leaves
1 small handful grated parmesan
1 small handful toasted pine nuts
juice of 1 lemon
1 garlic glove, crushed
6 tbsp good olive oil (or thereabouts)
salt and pepper
If you’re making the pesto, do this first. Put all of your ingredients in a food processor and blitz until you have a glorious green paste. If it isn’t loose enough, add more oil. Taste it. Does it need more lemon? Cheese? Salt? Adjust accordingly, then set aside.
Heat a grill pan on the hob until very hot. Brush your apricot halves with olive oil on both sides, and lay them cut-side down in the pan. Grill for two minutes, then flip. You should have the beginnings of a charred bar pattern – if you want it darker then leave them for three minutes per side. If you don’t have a grill pan, you can do this under a grill in the oven.
Assemble your salad. If you want this done prettily on a serving platter for a gathering, start with your leaves, and then place the apricots, chicken, and goats’ cheese on top and drizzle with the pesto. If you’re not fussed about presentation, whack it all in a bowl and give it a good mix. It will still taste great.
James and I take turns in choosing the films we’re going to watch, and we realised last week that he always picks films where everyone dies at the end, and I always pick films that end happily. We are probably educating each other in some way. It’s not that the films I pick are all sweetness and light, it’s just that the important protagonists tend to avoid actually dying. You know, so that they can stay alive to appreciate learning an important moral lesson, watching their children grow, or rocking a new makeover.
Part of the reason that I don’t particularly get along with films where everyone dies is that I think huge numbers of casualties tend to de-value each individual death. There’s no real way of discussing this without spoilers, but we watched Prometheus a couple of weeks ago, and… well, for me, a continuous slew of death after death starts to render the event meaningless. The first one is shocking and sad. But after that? You don’t have time to mourn any of the characters, and instead of regretting their demise you start thinking ‘Seriously? Another one? Why did they go in there? How did they not see that coming?’
My exception to this hard-hearted and blasé attitude is animal death. This probably makes me some sort of monster, but although watching people die in films is bearable – albeit sometimes heart wrenching – watching animals die in films is not. I cannot ever watch I Am Legend again, because I first watched it alone and unaware and was severely traumatised. When James and I watch films together now and it looks like an animal might die, I close my eyes and block my ears and he has to tell me when it’s over. Yes, I know I am pathetic.
Anyway, yesterday we went to see a film that we chose jointly. No animals die, so it is safe. We were very late to this party, so I am sure you have already seen Inside Out, but if you have somehow missed it then you should really go. I laughed out loud and I cried. It is one of those brilliant, beautiful, animated kids’ films that manages to appeal to children and adults alike by being fantastically funny, touching, and insightful. Some jokes will be lost on little children and appreciated only by adults, and some of the slapstick humour will have kids delighted. It is cleverly pitched to appeal both to children and to the guardians that have to take them to the cinema, so that no one is grumpy and falling asleep. It also cleverly makes a lot of psychological concepts accessible to younger children and gives them a language and a set of characters to comprehend and aid emotional expression.
Anyway, to the recipe, which is completely unrelated as usual.
Notes: I make this salad all the time. Probably too much. It’s quick and easy, and it feeds a crowd. It’s very adaptable, and you can chuck more stuff in or take things out according to preference. It’s basically my bastardised version of tabbouleh.
This recipe will make a big bowl of salad that could be a side dish for 5-6 people.
250g cooked mixed grains (lentils, bulgar wheat, quinoa, freekeh, cous cous, brown rice… whatever you fancy, or a mixture)
1 200g pack of feta
1 pomegranate (or a pack of pomegranate seeds, for speed)
1 bunch of mint
1 bunch of coriander
1 bunch of parsley
good olive oil
salt and pepper
This is just an assembly job and you probably don’t need me to tell you what to do, but just in case… Tip your cold grains into a large bowl. Chop your cucumber in half, de-seed it, then chop it into a small dice. Add the cucumber to the grains and mix. Crumble your block of feta over the grain mixture and stir. Add your pomegranate seeds. Juice your lemon and pop the juice in there too.
Pick the leaves from your handfuls of herbs, and either chop them very finely or (if you’re like me and don’t have any patience) whack them all in the food processor and blitz. I then add olive oil to the mixture in the food processor as it’s running until it becomes a loose paste (probably around 5 tbsp). Add the herbs and oil to your grains. Season well, and stir.
Cover and pop it in the fridge to chill for at least half an hour: this salad is best served cold. It will keep in there for a couple of days, and is great for lunches if you have leftovers.
I don’t post many savoury recipes on this blog, mostly because I don’t tend to cook savoury food from recipes. It’s much more about what we’ve got in the cupboards, and what I fancy tossing into the pot that I think might taste good. Translating that into recipes for blog posts is tricky, because I don’t tend to make something in the same way twice and I’ve usually forgotten how I made a meal by the time we’re eating it.
Also, most of the time I have no idea what I am doing. With cakes, it feels more like a science to me. Add x, y and z and mix to the power of n to make blueberry muffins. The outcomes feel more predictable with desserts than savoury dishes, although I admit that’s partly because I cook proper meals so haphazardly most of the time.
But mainly, it’s because by the time I get dinner ready, we’re far too hungry to hang about while I photograph it. For dinner this evening, we had chicken wrapped in streaky bacon, stuffed with spinach and goats’ cheese and roasted in homemade garlic butter. It tasted pretty great, but I can’t do a blog post on it because it never got photographed before being fallen upon by ravenous coyotes (or, more accurately, James and I at 9pm after a really long day).
This salad feels like a cheat of a blog post, to be honest, because it’s not even really a ‘recipe’. All you have to do is chop things up and chuck them in a bowl.
Still, it’s delicious and healthy and summery, and I make it all the time, so I thought I might as well post it to break up the endless parade of cakes, if nothing else.
Notes: Obviously you don’t need to worry massively about quantities here. Use your best judgement.
1 large fennel bulb
1 eating apple (I use Jazz apples here, partly for the pleasing colour contrast of their red skins with all the green, and partly because they provide a good balance of sweetness and sharpness)
1/2 cucumber, seeds removed
5 tbsp good quality olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
a few sprigs of fresh dill
Slice your fennel as thinly as you reasonably can, and chop your apple and cucumber into small matchsticks. There are probably julienne peelers or mandolins or something that would do this job admirably, but I just use a knife. Pop the fennel, apple, and cucumber into a bowl and mix them together.
Juice your lemon, and mix it with around 5 tbsp of your good olive oil. Feel free to use more or less as you wish – you want to coat the salad well without drowning it. Toss the fennel, apple, and cucumber in the lemon and olive oil mixture. Season well with salt and pepper, then toss again.
Top the salad with some fresh dill. Cover, and chill in the fridge until needed. I find this salad is best served cold.
See? There was hardly any point at all in me writing that. You could have worked it all out from looking at the picture.