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Words of Wisdom

July 16, 2013
dill and cashew rice, Afghan stew, salata and pitta

dill and cashew rice, Afghan stew, salata and pitta

I eat rice a lot and, not that I wish to boast, I don’t feel like I’ve ever had too many problems cooking it. But it seems like a lot of people do. I’ve had a lot of conversations with friends who are otherwise brilliant cooks who talk about how rice is “difficult” or they can never seem to get it right. I know a lot of people who’ve spent a lot of money on rice cookers that look to me like they make the whole process a lot more faffy . How do you clean one of those things for a start? (I always factor in how much effort it will take to clean up afterwards when deciding whether a task is worthwhile. This is why I still contest that Jamie’s “thirty minute meals” are at least Jamie’s 45 minute meals.) Please for the love of god don’t buy into this objectionable money-making myth  that all cooking needs special equipment and buy another damn kitchen gadget – a pan with a lid does the job just as well as it has done for centuries.

But I’ve had the somewhat annoying experience of having other people in my kitchen while I’m cooking rice and I’ve started to understand why people have difficulty in cooking firm yet tender, fluffy and tasty rice rather than starchy sludge, and end up just giving up on the whole thing.

It’s because they won’t leave the damn pan alone.

The best way to cook basic rice is to put it in a pan one part rice to slightly less than two parts cold water and a bit of salt, bring it to the boil, then turn the heat down really, really low, stick a lid on and leave it the hell alone – for roughly 12 minutes if it’s white rice, 25 if it’s brown. You try to avoid removing the lid until it’s done, you don’t mess with the temperature control, you don’t shake it or prod it with a spoon and you definitely don’t stir it – agitating the grains like that just makes them sludgy and sticky.

I have been in the kitchen with so many people who find the idea of just leaving something to its own devices incredibly stressful. They just have to check that things are going OK, they can’t believe it will cook evenly if they don’t stir things up, they think if they don’t take control of matters and involve themselves in the process in some way then everything will go terribly wrong. And they end up wrecking the rice. These are probably the same people who slow down their baked potatoes or sink their sponge cakes by opening the oven door to check on them too soon and letting all the heat out.

I’m sure there’s some kind of Zen teaching we can derive from this. As humans we do have a tendency to meddle and agitate things that would probably be best left alone to just run their course, and as a result our relationships and our lives too often end up all stodgy and sticky.  Sticking your wooden spoon in the pan of rice is the culinary equivalent of phoning your ex at 3am just so you can have one last last word about how you never want to see the loser again. Let it be, people, let it be!

I do love just plain rice generally, served alongside a nice curry or similar – my favourite rice is brown basmati for its nutty flavour and firm texture as well as the fact it’s meant to better for you than white (low GI score or something like that) , although I know a lot of people find brown rice a bit heavy. I’m also quite a fan of wild rice, although I don’t have it often because it’s expensive, just adding a handful to the standard stuff makes for a nice change.

I do jazz up rice every now and then to try and make it a bit more interesting in its own right, rather than just a bog-standard side dish. My favourite regular additions are:

–          Peas and sweetcorn. Probably the easiest – just microwave them and then stir through the drained rice gently with a fork. Sometimes I add a bit of cider vinegar plus some black pepper, and maybe some sunflower seeds.

–          Turmeric, mustard seeds and fried onion. I call this “yellow rice” and I’m sure people think it’s a lot fancier than it actually is.

–          Lemon zest, grated ginger, and grated coconut cream. This actually does add a bit of stickiness but in a good way – good with Thai or Jamaican type curries

–          Cheats egg fried rice. Egg fried rice is another dish people say they can’t get right. I boast that I can, but actually, what I do is make a big omelette, chop it up, and throw it into the cooked rice with some soy sauce. Sometimes I let the rice cool and dry  a bit and fry it in a wok, but usually I don’t bother. You can use scrambled tofu in the same way for a vegan version.

And there’s this invention, which is slightly more complex but is really good served as part of a mezze/tapas/smorgasbord type platter as it has its own strong flavour. It goes well with rich spicy sauces – in the picture I’ve put it with a spicy Afghan stew from Sally Butcher’s amazing “Veggiestan” book and a mint and coriander salata (which is a cross between salad and salsa).

Cashew and Dill Rice


2 cups of brown rice

5-6 cups fresh boiled water from kettle

Tbsp butter or Vitalite

3 sliced cloves garlic

2 handfuls broken up cashew nuts

Sprinkle of pumpkin seeds

Tsp turmeric

Tsp salt

Table spoon of dried dill tops

–  Melt the butter in a pan and fry the garlic in it. Once this starts to brown a little, add the cashew nuts and pumpkin seeds and stir to coat. Let them sizzle for a few minutes.

– Add the turmeric and salt and stir again.

– Add the uncooked rice and just stir enough to combine all the ingredients. Then add the boiled water. Don’t stir any more, just bring it to the boil, then turn it down, put a see through lid on and simmer for 25-30 minutes until cooked. If it looks like it’s going a little dry you can add more water, and after 20 minutes you can do a taste test to check if it’s ready, but other than that, leave it.

– Once cooked, drain the rice in a sieve – let it drip into a bowl for at least five minutes so that it sheds as much of its excess water as possible.

– Add another little knob of butter and the dill tops and stir through very gently with a fork.



Living Like A Disaster

April 2, 2013
Total Balls Up

Total Balls Up

When it comes to cooking, as with almost everything else (except maybe bullet catching tricks), you never really make progress if you’re afraid of failure.

It’s a good job I have that philosophy really, because I mess up in the kitchen all the time. I’ve learned a certain amount from recipe books and from watching other people, but being vegetarian, occasionally fussy, and often skint, I usually want to alter recipes into something cheaper and less meaty. And I never could deal with the fact that even if a recipe works for you, choosing a recipe, and going out to buy the exact listed ingredients just leaves you with a lot of mostly unused bottles and jars in the cupboard and bits of vegetables going off in the fridge. Also there are several common ingredients that despite my best efforts, I just don’t really like much. I know swede is a nutritious, versatile and locally sourced product, but whenever I see it in a recipe I still replace it with something that reminds me a little less of the chunks in vomit.

 So I adapt and experiment and then share the successes. Sometimes I want to share the failures too, because personally I think it’s more encouraging to know that other people get things wrong but don’t let it put them off trying again, than it is to follow somebody who gets everything right and perfect every time (this doesn’t just go for cooking either).

Obviously I always kind of knew not to put chocolate spread with beansprouts or serve casserole with ice-cream, but the finer points of what veg goes together and how to make sure cake is cake and not a pile of slop only really get learned through trial and error and then figuring out what went wrong. No-one ever told me an infallible magic formula for making things edible (is there such a thing?) so I sometimes make things that are very much not edible.  This does happen less often as time goes on.

One thing I have learned with cooking, as in life, when things don’t turn out quite the way you expected you can still make the best of them, and sometimes end up with something a whole lot more interesting. With a bit of positive mental attitude and some ingenuity, a kitchen “failure” need not be consigned to the bin. Before you give in and order takeout, always consider whether whatever it is can be rescued and turned into something else. Burgers that fail to stick together properly can be mixed with a tin of tomatoes or some gravy and served as “mince. Too crumbly biscuits can be mixed with Vitalite and maple syrup and make a cheesecake base, a too hot curry can be cooled with coconut milk, too much garlic calmed down with fresh parsley.

The other day I had a serious cake disaster but managed to rescue it in a quite spectacular fashion that I now need to boast about. I was trying to make a gluten free chocolate sponge. The recipe I was using contained eggs – mistake no 1 was to use vegan egg replacer. Usually this works absolutely fine – but I hadn’t factored in the gluten-free factor, or the fact that the recipe called for adding the whites and yolks separately. When the mixture seemed too liquid, I just added more egg replacer, which didn’t help at all. The mix had no air to it whatsoever – so as a sponge cake it was already doomed. Mistake no 2 was not using a teaspoon to add the xanthan gum. Poured it straight from the pot, did a clumsy and ended up adding way too much. This did something really weird to the mixture, giving it a texture a lot like one of those squishy stress balls. It was one gloopy mass with a life of its own, rolling around the bowl like some kind of alien. I admit I was tempted to give up at this point but A) I hate waste, especially chocolatey waste and B) I was really curious to see what would happen if I baked the weird thing. So I fought it into a baking tin (I mean, really fought it) and stuck it in the oven.

By this point I was pretty convinced that the thing wasn’t going to rise like a sponge, if it worked at all, so I thought I’d make a chocolate ganache type thing. If the “cake” came out edible I’d top it with the ganache and make a kind of chocolate tart, and if not I’d at least get to eat chocolate ganache.

So it happens the end result was a super rich double chocolate tart that I liked so much I’m going to make it again on purpose. The “recipe” is below. This is exactly what I did, but maybe you could get a similar result with fewer ingredients (e.g. ignore egg replacer completely and just add water,  doubt the egg replacer added anything, but I left it in for authenticity). If you’re on any kind of diet the ingredients list will give you a heart attack because it’s pretty calorific, but it is one of those rich things where you only need a tiny slice to feel satisfied, so don’t freak out too much. Let me know if you make this and how it goes. And if you want to share any other amazing kitchen rescues with me, do go ahead….


Chocolate Catastrophe Cake



4 teaspoons egg replacer

8 tablespoons warm water or  milk

Half a cup of melted solid coconut oil (or Vitalite)

¾ cup brown sugar

Shot of rum (or other booze)

Cup of gluten free flour

Pinch of salt

Teaspoon baking powder

Two large teaspoons xanthan gum

¼ cup of cocoa powder


Put the water,rum, egg replacer and sugar in a bowl and mix it all together well. Then sift and mix in all the dry ingredients. Mix in the coconut oil. If it gets too dry add more rum. At some point the mixture will start to form a gelatanious ball that slops around the bowl like it’s alive. Put this into a greased baking tin and try and stretch it into a flat circular shape as best you can. Stick it in the oven on 180°C for about 20 minutes until it starts to look and feel like a cross between a cookie and a brownie. When you take it out it should still be quite malleable so you can push the centre down with the base of a ladle (or whatever else is handy) so it becomes kind of shallow dish shape and leave it to cool.


Ganache Style Topping


About 300g of very dark chocolate

 Dollop of coconut oil

Half a can of coconut milk (use the rest in a curry that you made too hot)

Tablespoon brown sugar

Shedloads of rum (OK, about 2-3 shots, you may want to drink some as well at this point.)


Put the coconut oil and sugar in a pan over a low heat and stir until the oil melts. Add the coconut milk and heat through, break the chocolate into small pieces and stir in until it all melts. Pour into a container and then put in the fridge until it sets a bit.

Once the base is cool, spoon the topping onto the base and use a knife or spoon to swirl it into a neat circle. Cover and put it back in the fridge for half an hour or so or until you want to eat it.

Breakfast Club

February 14, 2013

It is a constant source of astonishment to me how many people seem to skip breakfast on a regular basis. I’ve even worked with some crazy weirdoes for whom breakfast seems to be a bit of an alien concept:  “Breakfast? You actually eat that? I mean, I know you’re supposed to, but nobody ever does right? Who has the time?”

Although I guess it’s kind of telling that these are usually the same people that somehow manage to turn up at work at 7am (or so I’m led to believe, how am I supposed to know?) with immaculately pressed clothes and polished shoes, whilst I roll in at ten past nine with my hair poking out in all directions and a copy of the Metro  with the sudoku  filled in wrong. But I mean really – porridge lost out against hyper-punctuality for you? What kind of life do you lead?

We all know by now that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, it kickstarts your metabolism, stops you snacking on crap later and all that. It’s really good for you and you should eat it. I can sort of understand people not doing other things that are good for them: going for a run when it’s raining is a drag sometimes, and salt and vinegar Kettle Chips are really, really tasty. But skipping breakfast? It’s been a good eight or nine hours since you guys last ate. Aren’t you at least a bit peckish? Why is eating not the first thing you want to do as soon as you leave bed? Is it just me who is always starving in the mornings?

I admit that most days, if I’m working full time, I do opt for cereal. I don’t care what anyone says about cereal being full of salt and sugar, any working person who has time on a week day morning to faff around making smoothies and poaching eggs is just a freak, and that’s all there is to it. Pouring a bowl  of muesli and chucking a bit of milk on takes 30 seconds so that’s what I’m sticking with if I’m actually planning on arriving in work before 11. I tend to alternate between rice milk, oat milk, and sometimes this new coconut based milk so as to avoid overdoing the soya. (When the anti-veggies go on the attack about the environmental impact of soya, I like to be genuine when I mention that they probably consume a lot more soy than I do!)

On holiday in the US I also got turned on to oat bran. I always assumed oat bran was just the American term for porridge (which I do love, but it always makes a horrible mess of my crockery when I make it). Oat bran is finer and smoother than just the porridge oats. It’s available in health food shops here fairly cheaply. It has a creamy texture so you can make it with water rather than milk. It takes around one minute to cook in a pan or less in the microwave, and it seems to be less sticky than porridge, so washing up afterwards is easier. It also lends itself to Cupboard Surprise style pimping up quite well – in the US I was eating it with cranberries and slivered almonds. Here I’ve been going mainly for sultanas, chopped hazelnuts and maple syrup (I LOVE maple syrup). I’ve also tried desiccated coconut and lemon zest and just a bit of cinnamon and brown sugar. If you’re more into savoury breakfast maybe sesame seeds and a pinch of salt would work? There might be an oat bran challenge for somebody here: what’s the most unlikely thing you can put with oat bran that still tastes good (Students please note: no this does not constitute approval of vodka for breakfast).

On weekends I do like a proper full cooked breakfast. For years I found this a bit of a challenge as cooked breakfasts are one of the meals it’s often a good idea to eat out, because timing the cooking of each individual item is a fine art, and they tend to use up every knife and pan you own and make a disaster zone  out of your kitchen.

Vegetarian breakfasts eaten out are sometimes a bit disappointing;  often it’s just the meat eater breakfast with the meat taken off or replaced by a pile of mushrooms (I don’t know who decided that mushrooms were a vegetarian equivalent to bacon, the same person who decided that a big mushroom sandwich was equivalent to a vegetarian burger I guess). Generally I’m not a big eater of fake “meats” but when it comes to a fried breakfast they have their place. If you can find or make some good veggy sausages to keep in the freezer they do come in handy for this. The fake bacon I’m less sold on personally: it tastes OK, but it is kind of weird that they go to so much effort to make it look like bacon by painting that little white strip on it and cutting it into a rasher shape, but it is always very obviously not bacon, and the impression always seems to be more marble-effect -insole-for-a-small-trainer than actual meat. There’s something really odd about that that I can’t quite get over.

Anyway, with the help of Linda McCartney sausages, and one enormous frying pan (seriously, I could sit in it) I have started making regular one-pan weekend breakfasts that have so far really impressed everyone to whom I’ve served them.  Obviously meat eaters could use normal sausages if they want, but I suspect the more absorbent veggy ones actually work better with the sauce.

There’s a very big cupboard surprise element to this, it’s the one-pan principle that counts more than what you actually put in it – but a key point in the success I think is the liquid smoke. This is a marinade type product that is easy to get and cheap in the US, and hard to find and pricy in the UK. However, it is worth tracking it down online and paying what seems like a silly amount (about £4 a bottle) because a bottle will last you for six months even if you put it in everything like I do. It adds a delicious smoky flavour to anything you care to think of. You can use barbecue sauce, but it won’t be as good.

Posh Weekend Breakfast

Pour oil into the biggest flat frying pan you can find. Slice an onion and throw that in and fry for a  minute, then take some defrosted sausages (2 per person is about right, but use as many as you like), chop them in half crossways, and throw into the pan, add a few drops of liquid smoke on top of each one. Fry until they brown. Now pour in a tin of baked beans and heat through. Turn heat off, add a generous shake of nutritional yeast (or marmite if you prefer) and black pepper, and more liquid smoke if you want, then stir it all together before serving either on its own or over a slice of toast.


  • Add thinly sliced potato at the same time as the onion and turn over as you cook to brown them. Maybe garlic would work too, if you can deal with garlic in the mornings.
  • Add halved fresh  cherry tomatoes or sliced mushrooms
  • Add some paprika or a pinch of chilli
  • Stir some houmous  or HP sauce into the baked beans
  • Use slices of extra firm tofu that you’ve soaked in sesame oil and liquid smoke instead of or as well as the sausages.
  • If you eat eggs, just after adding the beans, scrape everything to one side of the pan, and crack a couple of eggs into the empty side. You can mix everything together once the eggs   are cooked.
  • Serve over a breakfast muffin or a savoury pancake/crepe instead of toast
  • Anything else you think of (let me know so I can try it too!)

American Adventures

January 18, 2013


American pastries - mmmmm....
American pastries – mmmmm….

Well, I guess I’ve been a bit slack with my blog activities of late, but as those of you who know me or follow me on Twitter might know, part of my excuse for that is being out of the country in the grand ol’ US of A for a fair bit of December.

My introduction to the Land of the Free was just over two weeks in Denver, Colorado over Christmas, so I had plenty of time to enjoy the area, spend a lot of time pointing out minor differences from the UK (Getting used to saying “restroom” instead of “toilet”, huge shops with taxidermy in them, insanely polite restaurant staff, lack of brown sauce…). Now I’m over the jetlag it seemed like a good time to write about some of the food-based experiences I had.

Eating is one of the most interesting, and occasionally stressful things about travelling abroad. You get to discover new dishes and new ingredients, and find out how food you’re sort of used to eating in the UK is served in the country it actually comes from:  pizza bases in Italy are lovely soft but thin bubbly things – much nicer than the bready deep pan or cardboardy thin’n’crispy you tend to get here, for example (To be honest, I’m sure Italy pretty much just wins the international food competition in general).

You also run the risk of ordering something that isn’t quite what you expected: in Latvia I was convinced I was ordering some kind of hot drink off the illustrated menu, but when it arrived, what I actually got was a very rich chocolate mousse. Then there was the time in Berlin when my friend Vicky and I were about to catch the train back to the airport – we went into a cafe to try and get a bite to eat before leaving, and were told that sadly they were closed. Just as we were about to leave, the man behind the counter said “Hold on, I’ll get you something” sat us outside and bought us two bowls of very tasty vegetable soup. We gratefully polished it off, and were about to ask for the bill, when he bought out two plates full of burgers, salad and lentils, followed by two bowls of stewed rhubarb. The impromptu three course meal, appreciated as it was, meant that I ended up running through Berlin airport at a frankly quite dangerous speed and begging security to please hurry up – we did manage to catch the plane in the end, but only just.

Obviously, vegetarians do have a bit of an extra worry on this front. So far, I’ve not been anywhere where I couldn’t get something meat free to eat (the trickiest places tend to be office buffets and small towns in the UK), but not everyone in the world is familiar with the concept of never eating meat; not everyone has the same definition of meat (some people don’t count poultry); dishes that are typically veggie in the UK may be made with meat fat or bacon garnish elsewhere, and there may be a language barrier as well.

My visit to the States didn’t really present too many problems for vegetarians, and although eggs are a popular meat alternative, it was still probably better equipped for vegans than Europe. Whilst not everything on the menu was always what I expected, I was pleasantly surprised by most things.

Here are some things I discovered about food in Colorado:

There’s lots of it

They definitely live up to their reputation on portion sizes – which as someone who often still feels hungry after eating out, I appreciated.  They’re good about giving you a doggy bag to take home what you can’t finish too (although clearly they don’t call it anything as British sounding as a “doggy bag”). I was also impressed by the amount of choice available in their supermarkets – one consequence of having that much land to build on is that the shops can offer a LOT of different products. I was a bit gobsmacked by Wholefoods – which is a sort of supermarket health food shop – selling all kinds of nuts, beans, grains, obscure flours and other ingredients, vegan pizzas, cakes, salads- would make it much easier for anyone on a special diet to get the ingredients they need: which brings me to….

They’re good at dairy-free

Britain is very much not good at dairy free. If you don’t eat meat here, you usually get given cheese. In fact f you do eat meat, you usually get meat with cheese. If you order a cup of tea, it comes with milk in unless you specify otherwise. Chefs here are in love with creamy sauces. Even the most basic corner shops stock several different varieties of cheese. I don’t know what it is with the Brits and their obsession with greasy white food but there it is. If you want a dairy free alternative to milk, your affordable options are generally limited to soya, and you have to go to a big supermarket or a specialist shop to get it. In Denver, even the everyday supermarkets had huge fridges full of different kinds of dairy-free milk and tofu products. Almond milk is ubiquitous and costs the same as soya – a choice of soya or almond milk was sold in most coffee shops, which was fab. Almond milk, if you’ve never had it, is thinner, sweeter and silkier than soya, and very nice in a latte (They do good coffee in the US as well, although a lot of it was stronger than I’m used to so be prepared to be running around like a hyperactive child.)

They excel at breakfast (even if they don’t do brown sauce)

Most of the best meals we ate were breakfast or brunch. I mean, let’s be frank, it’s tough to beat a good old-fashioned English Breakfast, but I’d say the Americans aren’t far off.  Pancakes are amazing and I think we should all eat pancakes for breakfast more often. Pancakes aren’t so much like the pancakes we have here (which they would call a crepe – we also ate at a lovely crepe house), but more like Scotch Pancakes – thick and soft with a sweet flavour. At the IHOP (International House of Pancakes) they come in different flavours – I had pumpkin and cinnamon ones, which were delicious. I liked how at the IHOP you could order something called a “pancake combo” where you ordered a normal breakfast with your eggs, sausages etc then had pancakes as a sort of breakfast dessert. I’m definitely going to be making pancakes for breakfast on a more regular basis now, and maybe try adding some other flavours to the mix (berries, raisins, spices…? Any other good ideas?). This is a good pancake recipe for anyone who wants to do the same: Pancakes .

I was also very into the hash browns. I like hash browns in the UK as it happens:  like almost any hot fried potato mush product, hash browns are perfect comfort food for eating when you’re ill, hungover, or without gainful employment and wondering what happened to your life. I’ve always had this vague idea that a proper hash brown is made from scratch by frying a mixture of potato and onion, but the fact remains that even in quite swanky hotels, when you ask for a hash brown you get a solid triangle of reconstituted potato that came out of a packet in the freezer (plus you only ever get one. What’s that all about? Why so stingy? If my boyfriend can have three sausages why can’t I have another hash brown? It’s not like they’re expensive). In America I got what I imagine a hash brown is supposed to be like: a loose patty of grated potato, still dangerously hot and crispy, that falls apart a bit when you try to eat it. They’re more crunch than mush, which makes them much more satisfying, and they taste much fresher. I’m not sure if there was any onion or other flavour in there, or what made them (sort of) stick together, but they’re definitely something I’m going to try and recreate at home  because I bet they are amazing with brown sauce.

Which they don’t do. Much as I enjoyed American food, I’m afraid Britain still wins the condiment war (btw programmers, “the condiment war” needs to be a computer game asap.). Brown sauce is just an essential, and Colman’s mustard knocks the sock off that weird tasteless US stuff that doesn’t seem to do anything other than make food yellower. Also: piccalilli.

Another thing I learned that’s worth knowing for potential visitors: baked beans are not vegetarian. They have pork fat in them. You can get vegetarian versions, but they’re a specialist product.  I’m really glad I was told this.

Biscuits and gravy is a bit gross but not in the way you’d expect.

I was really curious about biscuits. Obviously, we all know they call biscuits cookies over there, so it was a bit surprising to find out they have something called biscuits as well, and that it comes served with gravy. In my head this was a nightmarish Sunday roast with the slices of roast beef replaced with bourbon biscuits, but no, this is not what it is. I was really curious about the dish, so wanted to try it – I can’t say as I’m terribly enthusiastic about it though.

A biscuit is a bit like a very heavy, savoury scone, and the gravy is like a thick white sauce – usually with bits of meat in, but in my case, with mushrooms. So essentially, biscuits and gravy is a big bowl of cream of mushroom soup, with a scone in it.

They have excellent Asian and Mexican food

Really. Lots of lovely tofu and bean dishes, loads of choice for veggies –probably a good bet if you want something reasonably healthy.

They put all their beer in the fridge because WTF??

I was under the impression that Americans only drank Budweiser (which, as we all know, is vile, vile stuff), so it was a bit of a surprise to me when we went into the local liquor store (that’s American for “off-license” dontcha know), and they did have a variety of decent beers and ales. Weirdly, they were all in the fridge. A really cold fridge.  I do like to try local beers wherever I go, so picked up a few bottles brewed by these guys:  . Out of curiosity I tried one while it was still ice cold – and as predicted, it tasted of nothing but cold. Once it warmed up a bit to room temperature and you could actually taste it, it turned out to have a delicious malty flavour. I have no idea why you’d make a lovely beer like that and then kill all the flavour off – I love America, it’s beautiful, the people are lovely, the shops are amazing and most of the food rocks ass,  but there are some things I just can’t embrace.

Miracles and Catastrophes

November 20, 2012
Every so often you stumble across a “recipe” that really surprises
you. I say “recipe” what I really mean, is when you’re putting
together a cupboard surprise meal that you’re expecting to be quick,
functional, palatable enough – but something in the combination of
ingredients just really clicks and it ends up being delicious.
This is the magic moment I love about cooking – when you think – “ooh, this really WORKS!”.

 Sadly this almost always happens when I’m eating alone – I get an
intense flavour hit in my living room and instantly wish there was
someone else there to feed the food to, so I could share the
experience – I have more than once considered taking a bowl of
particularly tasty tomato soup round to the neighbours but modern
Britain being what it is I’m not sure whether they would take this as
a)a lovely public spirited gesture or b) insane and a bit scary.

I often feel like when I cook for other people  what I make ends up
serviceable, but not particularly noteworthy – just like when you’re
practicing cartwheels, the really good ones always happen when
nobody’s watching. I always wish I could feed people those dishes as
proof – “See, I told you – I really am an amazing cook.” Sometimes you
can salvage the leftovers and feed them to someone on a separate
occasion – but time is a flavouring – it alters the taste. Some things
get better when left a few days (curry and stews generally do) but
often they lose something. Sometimes if it’s really delicious I just
can’t resist eating it before it gets as far as anybody else.

 For a long time I used to think that I would remember the combination
I’d used for one of these magical dishes and be able to re-create a
hundred times in future. But that never works. I’ve now learned that
as soon as possible after eating something surprisingly good, I
absolutely must write down what I did. I’m slowly training myself into
this habit and am creating my own personal recipe books full of things
that work – most of them eventually end up on this blog (although not
all, as that would mean I’d end up posting endless tomato based sauces
– there are a lot of slight variations you can make to tomato sauce to
make it special).

Of course, sometimes it does go the other way too. Occasionally I make
something that should by all rights be delicious, that contains lots
of ingredients I like and that usually work together and somehow it
ends up revolting. This is always heartbreaking – I recently made a
casserole I couldn’t eat, I hate wasting food, I really do – if
something is just a bit bland I will eat it rather than chuck it away,
but this just tasted so bitter and horrible I couldn’t get it down me
even with lashings of brown sauce and a strong dose of guilt about
starving children. I’m not sure quite what was wrong – it involved
leeks, veggy sausages, red wine, sweet potatoes… I suspect I overdid
the wine, then tried to compensate by adding brown sugar and the
flavours just got all muddled up and it didn’t work. Either way, I
won’t be doing that again. There was also what I now call the
legendary “poo soup” – I decided I would be all anti-waste and make a
soup using some of the leftover vegetable crudites from the buffet at
work – plus some lentils, spices and some shredded cabbage I had in
the fridge. Man that was gross. It looked like poo, it smelled like
poo. I don’t tend to go around eating poo so I can’t with any
authority tell you it tasted like poo, but it really wouldn’t surprise

This is the nature of being a self-taught cook really. My Mum showed
me how to do simple things like boil an egg, bake a potato and do a
basic pasta and tomato sauce before I left home, but apart from that
I’ve been more or less making it up as I go along –  reading books,
watching other people, experimenting, and picking up ideas off teh
interwebs. As I carry on living and eating and racking up more days
and more meals, the successes are starting to gradually outweigh the
disasters. I’m starting to learn the flavours that interact well with
each other and the ones that don’t, the importance of texture, and
cooking times, and learning things like to cook rice well it’s best to
leave it alone rather than keep stirring it, that sugar is often good
with vegetables (but not too much),  that potatoes always take longer
than you think, and that sometimes a pinch of salt or a squirt of
lemon is all you need to make a bland dish delicious. The occasional
disaster is inevitable, but I get it at least half right most of the
time – and it’s much better in terms of both fun and health to
experiment with new things a lot, than to just eat the same things
every day because it’s all you reliably know how to cook.

One thing I have learned is that when trying something new, it’s
usually best to keep it simple. I think this is where I went wrong
with the disgusting casserole and the poo soup – just too many
ingredients, too much going on. The recipe here, on the other hand, is
something I made when looking for something new to do with the cheap
avocados I got from Lidl and it’s ridiculously simple, but delicious,
moreish and a very beautiful bright green, which is always a bonus in
any dish, I think. I know warm avocado sounds bizarre to some people,
but trust me on this – it’s lovely.

 I also fried some tempeh in olive oil with garlic and pepper and a
few more pine nuts to mix in to the pasta for protein – you could do
the same with tofu, sliced up sausages, maybe some bacon or prawns if
you’re a meat eater, you could add flaked almonds or crumbled walnuts,
 or just chuck in a can of some kind of bean (cannelini beans would be
my preference I think, but if you want to do a sort of Mexican style
guacamole inspired thing, you could go with pinto or black beans I
guess) – maybe you could stick a dollop of yoghurt on top too. You
could also serve it as an accompaniment to something else, or even in
tiny portions as a starter if you’re doing a posh meal.

Avocado Pesto


Spaghetti/pasta (ideally wholemeal)
At least two ripe avocados (you can tell they’re ripe by fiddling with
the little stalk – it should be loose and move around easily)
Two limes (or lemons)
Handful of fresh spinach
Pine nuts (you can probably use other kinds of nuts or seeds if pine
nuts are a bit expensive)
Olive oil
A chopped clove of garlic
Salt and pepper
Nutritional Yeast (or parmesan  cheese or similar)

– Put the pasta on to boil in plenty of salted water as usual. If
you’re frying tempeh or whatever to go with this, get that going too.
– Meanwhile, squeeze the lime juice into a bowl. it’s important you do
this bit first to stop the avocado going brown.
– Add a good slug of olive oil, some pine nuts, some oregano (about a
desert spoon full for two avocados is good), garlic, and salt and
pepper to the bowl
– Cut open the avocados, pop out the seed (you can grow them into nice
little desk plants) and squeeze all their flesh into the bowl. mush it
up and mix into the other ingredients
– Add the spinach and yeast/cheese
– Now get a hand held blender and blend the mixture until it’s a
smooth bright green paste. If you don’t have a blender you should
really get one – they only cost about a fiver, but in the meantime I
guess you could just mush it up with a fork as you’re probably too
hungry to run down to Argos right now.
– Now pour it into a frying pan or other shallow pan (the one you
fried the tempeh in is fine if you did that), and turn the heat on the
hob very low and stir the mixture just for a couple of minutes. You
don’t want it to start bubbling or cooking really, just for it warm up
– Now drain the pasta, and mix the pesto and pasta together and serve.

You Shall Go To The Ball

November 8, 2012
Anyone who reads this blog regularly, or knows me personally probably
knows how much I love pumpkin. Pumpkin, in my opinion, is the ultimate
vegetable. If I ever invent a game of vegetable top trumps, pumpkin
will be the card that everyone wants to hold. It just rocks. Look at
the evidence:

– It has a cute name. If you had a tiny kitten it would be really
sweet if you named it “Pumpkin”. Naming it Courgette, or Sweetcorn
would just be stupid. The cuteness of the word “pumpkin” is surpassed
only by “Munchkin”, which is what some people call the miniature

– They’re the most decorative of all vegetables. Obviously there’s
that whole Halloween carving business we’ve just been through. I know
we imported this tradition from America, and when I was little we used
to carve a swede or a turnip or a particularly unpopular neighbour,
but I think we owe the US for this one. Pumpkins are easier to scoop
out, and they look much nicer than a swede. (I always think a carved
out swede looks a bit gruesome – like it might actually be a small
rotting head). There are also some very impressive example of pumpkin
carving to be seen. Quite apart from that, though, pumpkins look
lovely even when they haven’t been carved. That beautiful bright
orange – the luxurious dumpy shape- it looks like that orb that’s part
of the crown jewels. And who wouldn’t want the edible equivalent of
the crown jewels in their kitchen?

– They have their own fairy tale. OK, so the story of Cinderella has
some questionable messages (get rescued from a life of work by
marrying a prince who values you mainly for your shoe size), but the
bit with a pumpkin turning into a coach is kind of cool.

– They are incredibly versatile. My sister’s boyfriend asked me
recently for ideas of what to do with the inside of a pumpkin once
they’d carved it out for Halloween, and I spent the next ten minutes
going “ooh – ooh – or soup…ooh…ooh… curry…ooh…and you can
make cake with them too apparently….”. You can do SO MUCH with a
pumpkin it’s actually a bit ridiculous. They work sweet and savoury.
You can peel them, or, if you’re cooking them a long time, eat the
skin as well. You can puree them or eat them in chunks. You can hollow
them out and stuff them with other things (I once saw soup served in a
large pumpkin, with the pumpkin acting as the bowl. I thought this was
lovely). If you buy a big pumpkin now – and they should be pretty
cheap in the shops now Halloween has just gone, you can chop it up and
freeze handfuls in sandwich bags or Tupperware for use in recipes for
the next few months.

My favourite things to do with pumpkins are:
–  Roast them in the oven in oil and herbs, with other vegetables,
plus maybe some almonds or cashews and then just serve with cous cous
or bulgur wheat.
– Put them in curry – often a Thai style curry. I think pumpkin goes
especially well with coconut.
– Make soup. Just something simple with lentils, leeks and stock, or a
fancy one with Thai curry paste.
– Put them in risotto – the creamy texture of pumpkin is really good
in risotto. I also like to use spinach or peas when I’m using pumpkin,
mostly because I like the colour clash between the green and the
orange, but it also tastes good.
– And this pasta recipe here, which has recently become a bit of a
staple, and a good alternative to my usual stand-by of
pasta-with-red-sauce. You can actually use butternut squash instead of
pumpkin for those terrible times when pumpkins are not available, and
it’s still good, but pumpkin is better. You can add other vegetables
or herbs if  you have any lying around – again, spinach is good.

Pumpkin Pasta


A pumpkin/ part of a pumpkin – chopped into small cubes
cooking oil (Something with a bit of flavour, like a nut oil adds
something, but just plain vegetable oil is fine)
An onion
Tin of butter beans or cannelini beans – drained
Some garlic (I use  one clove per person I’m cooking for, but I do like garlic)
Soya cream, or single cream
Pesto, or, at a pinch, some mixed herbs
chopped fresh rosemary (optional, but lovely)
Nutritional yeast (optional)
Sun-dried tomatoes (optional)
Dried pasta
Salt and pepper

– Heat the oil in a pan. Chop the onion and garlic into very small
pieces and stir fry for five minutes
– Add the pumpkin and move around to coat in oil. Cook for a couple of
minutes, then turn the heat down low, stick a lid on the pan and leave
it for 20 minutes- half an hour, stirring occasionally, until the
pumpkin gets nice and soft and a bit squishy.
– Put the pasta on to boil according to the packet instructions.
– Pour the beans into the pan and mix in. The pumpkin should be soft
enough that it’s starting to break up a bit. Now turn the heat off and
get a hand held blender (You can do this with a potato masher, but a
blender is easier). Blitz the pumpkin and beans until it becomes a
mushy mix, but not so much that it liquifies. You’re not making soup.
– Add around a cupful of cream, a big dollop of pesto and/or the herbs
and the sun-dried tomatoes if using. Stir these in and reheat the
whole pan, gently on the hob until heated through. Then turn off the
heat and add the yeast and season to taste.
– Drain the cooked pasta and mix the pumpkin mush into it, a dollop at a time.

The Reading List

September 23, 2012


I’ve been thinking about doing a post on cookery books for a while now. Obviously the whole ethos of Cupboard Surprise is about not sticking too rigidly to recipes, about getting the gist of basic principles and adapting them to whatever is available. So my use of recipe books in the traditional sense is pretty limited. It’s rare for me to be in the kitchen with a recipe book open in front of me paying careful attention to each step – and not just because whenever I do try that the book in question ends up covered in food (I did once bake something complicated from an internet recipe with my laptop open in front of me – this is definitely living dangerously when you’re as clumsy as I am.)
But cookery books do have their place, and I do have a small number of favourites that I think are worth sharing. In my view there are two things that make a cookery book worth owning, and often (not always) they are mutually exclusive:

1. It arms you with basic skills, or what I think of as “root” recipes. It equips you with methods for, say, making bread or sponge cake, barbecuing effectively, or the best way to peel a mango or bake a potato, so that you can adapt these skills to other dishes you make. And it provides you with ideas – such as mashing up butternut squash with cream instead of serving it in chunks (An idea that I ended up turning into one of my new favourite pasta dishes, though my final recipe bears little resemblance to the original), or adding pomegranate juice to a marinade (at which point I’d be thinking “what other, less expensive, fruit juices would work here?”). These are inspiration books – creative starting points that provide you with raw material to go off and get creative and resourceful. They are the polar opposite of the student cookbook I was given many years ago which turned out to be essentially eighteen different stir fries. Seriously, once you’ve made one stir fry you’ve made them all – and surely the whole “use up the contents of your veg drawer” purpose of making stir fry is negated a bit when you have to go out to buy specific ingredients to make the exact stir fry the book is telling you to make.  Does anyone actually read a stir fry recipe that says “200g baby corn” and think “oh no I haven’t got any baby corn, I’ll have to go shopping before I can make this.” I mean, please…

2. The food porn. I’ve spoken about this before. The books with the gorgeous photographs and sumptuous descriptions, and seem to have been put together by artists rather than cooks. I own several of these. I hardly ever cook from them – I feel a bit like the recipes contained are not really for the likes of me, and as my presentation skills leaving something to be desired, even if I tried, I’d just be left sadly disappointed as my final dish would never look anything near as beautiful as the one in the book. They make me feel a bit like the pallid skinned middle aged couple trying to recreate high budget erotica in a bedroom with an overflowing laundry basket and kids asleep in the next room. Most of the time such things are probably best left firmly in the fantasy world.

What follows here is a small list of my favourite cookery books. Books I love and go back to repeatedly, and recommend that everyone buys, borrows, steals, or photocopies the best bits in the library. None are difficult to get hold of or expensive. If you do get them from Amazon please look at the “New and Used” section first. Apart from often being cheaper, it’s also a good way to support smaller retailers who survive by selling through Amazon, rather than automatically giving all of your money to The Man (does anyone else find it concerning that when you type “Amazon” into Google, the first thing that comes up is neither the river, nor the mythical female warrior tribe?)

You’ll notice most of my favourite books are from the US. Shoot me down for my lack of patriotism if you like, but I honestly think Americans do vegetarian cookery better than the British. Despite there invariably being a section at the front dealing with vegetarian nutrition, the dishes in British cook books are often very unbalanced, with no protein component – it’s not a massive problem as I can chuck in a tin of chickpeas or a handful of flaked almonds when this happens, but it irritates me nevertheless, as it just acts as fuel for all those annoying “But where do you get your protein?” people. There is also an annoying tendency to rely on dairy products in general, and cheese in particular. Perhaps this is because there are so many varieties of cheese widely available in Europe, whereas not so much in the US. American books are more vegan friendly.  Americans are also much much better at using all kinds of beans; maybe it’s the Mexican influence and the wider availability of different beans, which is something I like. In the UK, for most people: Beanz Meanz Heinz.


On the other hand, it takes a while to get used to US cookery writing: it took me ages to figure out that “cilantro” means coriander, and not parsley, that “green onions” are spring onions, and a skillet is a frying pan. I still don’t really understand what “biscuits” are, other than you eat them with gravy, so I hope they’re not anything like Rich Tea or Hobnobs. I do like the tendency to cook by volume (in cups and tablespoons) rather than by weight. It’s much simpler and quicker, and easier to work out how to increase the quantities if you need to.

The List

The Complete Guide to Vegan Food Substitutions by Celine Steen and Joni Marie Newman

I only bought this recently, and it’s one of the most useful things I’ve ever spent my overdraft on. Not just for vegans, it’s a bible for anyone who wants to avoid meat, dairy, eggs, gluten, soy, sugar or animal by-products – there’s a chapter for each of these things. The ethos behind the book is that it provides you with the information you need to take any favourite non-vegan recipe and replace the relevant ingredients with vegan alternatives in a way that won’t completely wreck the flavour or texture. It tells you which non-dairy milks are best for which uses (they aren’t all equal), how to decide what the role of an egg is in a recipe before you decide what to substitute (depending on whether it’s acting as a leavening agent, a binder or a moistener), it explains how  to cook tofu that doesn’t taste like you imagine that slop they eat at the beginning of the Matrix would taste, and shows you how to make your own meat substitutes, dairy free ice cream and “cheese” out of cashew nuts (yes, really). There are relatively few actual recipes in the book but the ones it does have are divided between incredibly useful (seitan, pizzas, cookies, tofu scramble) and delightfully bonkers (vegan Eggs Benedict anyone?). This is the one book I think anyone even thinking about vegetarianism, veganism, or free-from diets absolutely has to own.


Babycakes by Erin Mckenna

I was given this by a friend who visits the US a lot – it contains some of the recipes from the Babycakes bakery in New York – I’ve never been, but apparently the lunchtime queues are round the block so that has to be a good sign!

I’ve made a few of the recipes from this book: the chocolate brownies are brilliantly gooey considering there are almost no traditional ingredients in them, and the cookies I really like because they are much lighter than standard cookies, so you don’t get that icky too-many-cookies feeling after eating a few. Mainly I like this book for the ideas it gave me: such as substituting coconut oil for butter (really, really good!), apple sauce for eggs, and taking brownies out of the oven five minutes early for extra gooeyness. I’ve adopted a lot of these principles into my general baking with good results. It also passes the food porn test with flying colours as the pictures of the goodies are gorgeous (I’m not sure about the picture at the back of the stunning supermodel-like bakery staff though – how are they all so slim and clear skinned?).

There are some slight drawbacks: The recipes may not be to everyone’s taste – many of them aren’t as sweet or as stodgy as the dairy and sugar filled counterparts, which might put some people off (I confess I’ve actually made some of these recipes replacing normal sugar for the suggested substitute, or standard plain flour for gluten free); and not all of the ingredients are easy to get in British supermarkets. If you’re really desperate to try something in here though, most of the ingredients can be found online at reasonable prices.


How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson

I have had a bit of a girl crush on Nigella for years. Not only does she have amazing hair and a cleavage that makes me wonder whether anyone else ever looks at her hair, but I love that whole burlesquey, theatrical personality: her sense of the camp and slightly ridiculous really comes across in this book (one of the recipes even has Malibu in it). It’s written with warmth and humour and is just generally great fun to read – it feels a bit like having afternoon tea with your posh, sexy, talented friend who you would clearly hate if she wasn’t such a sweetie. (I also like the fact that whenever I see Nigella on telly she makes as much of a mess of her kitchen when baking as I do – although her TV kitchen is obviously a million times nicer than mine.)

Mostly this sits firmly in the “Food Porn” category, but there are some useful recipes in here as well – there is a whole chapter on bread that includes traditional loaves, flatbreads and delicious bagels that are well worth spending almost all day making. My favourite biscuit recipe – which I know off by heart now and is very adaptable – also comes from the “Children” section of this book. You do need to use a bit of judgement as some of the cooking times and quantities are sliightly out – so it’s not  for those who demand perfect precision (although if that’s you God only knows why you’re reading this blog!).  None of the recipes in this are quick – it’s a book for people who love to bake, and who consider setting aside a whole Sunday to make a pie or a rustic loaf to be a luxurious indulgence, rather than a chore. But in an era of “Easy Meals in 10 Seconds for People Who Are So Busy They’ve Forgotten Where the Kitchen Is” type books, sometimes it’s kind of nice to read something by someone who just really loves cooking.


Supernatural Every Day by Heidi Swanson

Heidi Swanson writes the 101 Cookbooks blog, which is well worth a read . She’s also a professional photographer who lives in San Francisco, so unsurprisingly, this book and its predecessor Super Natural Cooking are beautiful to look at and flick through. The blurb at the beginning that gives her thoughts about various different grains and pulses and spices and the like is quite interesting to read too – she is very much in favour of experimenting and developing the skills to create your own versions of the dishes too, which is good to see. In my opinion this is far better than the first book, as it’s full of recipes that seem quite reasonable to make on a regular basis and there’s less faffing around with things like soaking and other long winded preparation. I don’t think I’ve ever made anything in this to the letter, as there are a lot of ingredients that are nigh on impossible to come by in Cardiff (such as farro), but there are some nice ideas. I especially like her white bean spread with rosemary – which is a rich and satisfying alternative to houmous. I also made the multigrain pancakes to use up some rye flour that I bought on a whim because it was cheap then didn’t know what to do with – and I like her idea of folding things like fruit actually into the batter before frying, rather than just eating them as a filling. I’m hoping to make more things from this in future so maybe I can report back on the successes. There’s a chapter on drinks which I’m quite keen on having a go at.


So there are my top choices. Any more recommendations from anybody?!


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