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similes / empanadas

16 Aug

empanadas, drawing

“Imagine you are holding something in the palm of your hand. A cup of tea. Now tip it out onto the grass.”

“What? Why would I do that?”

“It’s not good tea… PG Tips? No, Lipton. And it’s cold, tip it out. Now pretend it’s a sponge, squeeze it out. Good. As you extend your arm, turn your hand and squeeze the sponge at the last minute. Imagine there is a leaf between your elbow and your side. Actually,” he chose the largest vine leaves from the terrace, “here. Keep it close to your body, as long as possible.”

As my flatmate Emma had requested, my brother was teaching us karate, starting with a basic punch.

“Now step forward at the same time. Good.”

Our vine leaves floated down to the ground, over and over. Step. Step. The grass under my bare feet was slightly damp in the evening air.


My mother had a project for us too, also for late afternoon when the sun was low over the fields. She roped us into building an outdoor bread oven, following a rough recipe. Reluctant to surface from my summer reading list, I soon discovered that it wasn’t so much hard labour as child’s play: making sandcastles and mud pies. With the same satisfaction of constructing a perfect dome of lemon cream over a lemon tart, we made a smooth dome of wet sand, then plastered it with damp newspapers (pictures of Wills and Kate, also “en vacances dans le Gers!” the local paper was excited to announce).

building bread oven, drawing

Then the mud and straw from the nearby field had to be stamped with water and more sand to make it pliable. Like grapes for wine, tougher. We started with garden clogs on, but it turned out to be easier to do so without, the mud squishing between our toes as it softened. My mother and I stamped and stomped and squished around in little circles. Finally the hard rubble (interspersed with dangerous pieces of terracotta roof tile) became smooth, the same plasticity as a butter slab beaten and moulded into shape for croissant dough. My brother supervised the construction of the clay layer, built up in balls squashed into a rough wall.

“About the size of cricket balls,” my mother said.

“Not a cultural reference I know,” Emma replied, a smile in her voice.

The cricket balls spiralled up and around, covering the English royal family and more local news of cows and tractors and shooting stars. When smooth, the dome looked like an old fashioned beehive. It reminded me of trying out wattle and daub on a school trip, ancient building techniques. The first layer complete, the mud now covered my hands and feet and stomach, somehow. Better than a spa, an exfoliating mud mask.

“We should sell this as an expensive retreat, mindfulness and oven building!”

The sun was almost gone by then, and we had empanadas to prepare. So we left the second layer and the carving out of the door for another day, and rinsed off the mud.


The empanadas were Emma’s idea. She wanted to make a nice gesture, a thank-you, on her last evening. All the more so since we accidentally told her what my mother had said about house guests.

“Like fish, after three days, they start to go off.”

My brother tried to make it better by adding, “but you are family really, more like Christmas cake. You can stick around for a month.”

She thought it was funny, I think, since she knows my anti-social tendencies. And because, equivalent to the cricket ball remark, in France, the bûche de Noël stays fresh for a day or two at best.

empanadas, drawing 2

Her father sent us a picture of a faded newspaper cutting, their family recipe. Her mother was from Chile; she and her sister have spent time there and in Argentina, both of which make empanadas of varying sizes and fillings. She deciphered the sparse instructions for me, a cup of this, a small spoon that, mix, rest, roll. I made the pastry, unsure if the cold butter and warm milk would cancel each other out. But,

“It smells right,” Emma said. She was frying onions and finely diced beef, grilling red peppers, before adding cumin and chilli, a homegrown tomato, a handful of raisins. Then I rolled out the dough, stamped out handspan circles with a small, white bowl, while she added the filling, folded the rounds into half moons and crimped the edges, from the corners first, fold, press, fold, press. My brother brushed the little parcels with beaten egg. They could have been miniature Cornish pasties, or enormous gyoza. Choose your own cultural reference. Half were roasted pumpkin (from the garden) and a strong, melty goat’s cheese, the other half beef and peppers and a slice of boiled egg, The latter had sun’s rays drawn out with a knife point, in the manner of a galette des rois.

We ate our baked empanadas on the terrace, under the vines, next to the half finished mud oven. There was a meaty red wine from the Gers to mimic an Argentinian one and no need for cutlery.


N.B. No recipe today, because I don’t consider myself an expert yet. I wanted to tell the story anyway, to make a list of all of the imagery we used across our lessons and constructions. So much of recipe writing is hitting on the right simile / metaphor that will ring true for the reader. Not to be poetic, but to be explicitly clear. It looks like, smells like, feels like this.

We did compare a few recipes on line to see if they were similar to Emma’s family one. They were the same, and subtly different, in the way that everyone’s Chilean grandmother has her own special method. And yet they were not so difficult, especially with company. I highly recommend having a go. The fillings can be improvised according to your fridge or garden. The roast pumpkin and goat’s cheese (nothing more than that) was particularly good. And they reheated nicely for lunches and snacks later on.


white asparagus with miso butter and boiled eggs

9 Jun

asparagus, miso butter

(I wanted to called it miso-mimosa? misomosa? mimosimo? but any portmanteau sounds too much like mumbling.)

It has been a good season so far for all the asparagi: I have had green asparagus dipped in miso-butter at KOYA in London (and wished there was bread to scrape up the leftover sauce). Wild asparagus from a market in Strasbourg, the thin stems like ears of wheat, sweet enough to snap off and eat then and there like mange-tout peas. Those were cooked briefly in oil and butter, as per the forager’s suggestion, to become like green spaghetti. And last week at Le Casse Noix in Paris, my new favourite bistro (where they offer you a mousse-like chicken liver pâté while you struggle to decide on the menu!) my starter was white asparagus and poached egg, all drowned in a very French sauce made of cream and a richly meaty stock. I was sad to run out of bread, again, when Jen pointed out that they gave me a spoon for a reason.

Since then, I have put miso and butter on many things. Other vegetables. Inside flaky, savoury croissant twists. I have been out for ramen with miso broth and butter, a classic combination. Most often I have used it as a last-minute pasta sauce, the way the Italians eat spaghetti all’olio-aglio-peperoncino when there is nothing else in the fridge. The same principle of fat-flavour-heat: I toss the cooked pasta with a big spoonful each of butter and white miso, add sriracha. Then probably eat the whole bowl in bed, because that is the kind of comfort food it sets out to be. Salty and rich and full of umami. Dare I say it, better and easier than a cheese sauce. Or just as good considering you already ate all the cheese earlier as a snack.

And today, we had an abundance of fat, white asparagus from the morning’s market, since our favourite vendor threw in a bunch of broken stalks for free. For a slightly more elegant supper this evening – using a table mat and everything – I combined the best of the above meals.

First I boiled some eggs. And in the meantime, I peeled and sliced the white asparagus.  As soon as the eggs were done, the asparagus went in some salted water to fully cook through. (It doesn’t like to be as squeaky and snappy as the green kind.) Eggs peeled. Drained the asparagus stalks and swirled butter, olive oil and miso in the hot pan. Then tossed the asparagus in the miso sauce, serving it piled on a plate with the eggs grated on top. Miso-mimosa. We had some fresh basil, also from the market man, growing roots in a glass jar. Torn leaves of basil, black pepper. It looks very springlike, shades of yellow and white and green, but it could be dressed up further with toasted seeds, croutons, any number of things. It definitely needs bread to clean up those last bits of egg yolk and miso left on the plate.

asparagus, miso butter 1

P.S. Could my brand of miso BE any cuter? The characters even have names: Megumi-chan and Dai-san are SO excited about soup. But not just soup: a spoonful of miso works for sautéed mushrooms, in mashed potatoes, anything that needs a kick of flavour. The vegan equivalent of a rich, meaty stock, and one that I used a lot at Freegan Pony, without the extra butter of course. Oishii desu ne!


White asparagus with miso butter and boiled eggs

Obviously this would be good with other asparagus, green or wild, so adjust cooking times accordingly. Miso brands differ too, so taste as you go and add extra if you like it as much as I do! Add more butter too, for more dipping at the end. This is just the roughest guide.

serves 2

large bunch of white asparagus (500-600g)

2-4 eggs depending on hunger

2 tbs unsalted butter

1 tbs olive oil

1-2 tbs white miso paste (the mildest kind)

fresh herbs eg. basil

salt and pepper

Bring a medium pan of water to the boil, then gently add eggs and cook for 10 minutes. Lift them out and place in cold water. Meanwhile, peel the white asparagus as the skin is much tougher than the green kind. Snap off the hard ends. Cut any very fat stalks in half lengthways. Boil the asparagus in salted water for 8-10 minutes. Taste to check, they should be just soft. Drain into a colander. Add butter, oil and miso to the empty, hot pan, stir to melt and combine, and then toss in the asparagus. Mix, taste and add more miso, butter or salt as preferred.

Arrange asparagus stalks on plates. Grate boiled eggs on the large holes of a cheese grater, or finely chop. Sprinkle over asparagus. Add lots of black pepper, some salt and torn fresh herbs if desired. Serve warm.


sumathi’s mint rice

17 Feb

mint rice new

Our Indian trip started in Puducherry. Or, in fact, we arrived in Chennai and took two buses south, standing up and swaying in the wind from the open windows. One woman near me had come prepared for the three hour trip, with a tiffin box full of steamed idli that she ate dipped in a red sauce. Jen chatted to the girl behind us, I daydreamed.

We made our way to the guesthouse on foot, our backpacks turning us into unwieldy turtles, then went straight out for lunch, a vegetarian thali served on a banana leaf that cost all of 70 rupees. We wandered down to the sea, taking in the families out for a Sunday walk, the occasional French signage (Alliance Française, Café de Flore) in an otherwise Indian city. I drew pictures of the kolam, intricate swirled chalk designs at the entrance to each house.

One morning, we woke early for a cycle tour on colourful bikes, for lessons in local culture – including the kolam – and in assertively ringing the bicycle bell.

The cooking class at our guesthouse started with a trip to the market for ingredients. We bought vegetables, herbs, ginger, green peas from one stand, and individual packets of nuts and masala spices from another. A skinny cat sat under the tables in the fish market. Outside the chicken stand, cages of birds waited. As we watched, our chicken was killed, spun in a centrifuge to remove the feathers and cut up with confident strokes of a heavy knife. Less than two hours later it became chicken masala with a paste of ginger and garlic and peppercorns, the freshest meat I will ever eat.

Back in the kitchen our hostess and teacher, Sumathi, prepared the mise en place, each ingredient in its gleaming metal dish. I didn’t know what the mint rice on our menu would be. A side dish? boiled rice with a few mint leaves? In fact it was close to a risotto, not as creamy but bursting with flavour: a base of sweated onions, a diced potato and those green peas, plus a vibrant pesto of mint, ginger, coconut and chili. The rice was finished in a pressure cooker in a few minutes, turning out fluffy grains in a bright green.

It actually reminded me a little of the Italian dish, pasta alla ligure, with its basil pesto, beans and potatoes. Sumathi was like an Italian mother too: eat eat, have some more, please, mangia! Her little son clowned around, showing off his English and playing tennis with the racket-shaped crisps still warm from the fryer. Our homemade meal was served on banana-leaf plates – and despite being full, I couldn’t resist a second helping of the rice. Good with the sauce from the chicken masala, but perfect just as it was.

Sated, we napped the rest of the afternoon under the whirring fans. The next day on the bus to Tiruvannamalai, we proudly opened the tupperware box Sumathi had packed for us and snacked on her rava kesari, a buttery semolina-cardamom dessert, while we waited for the bus to fill and to move on.


Sumathi’s mint rice

I have made this several times at home, and have adjusted the recipe slightly. No need for a pressure cooker. The mint rice works equally well as a colourful side dish to a meat or vegetable curry; or in a bowl, risotto-style, with extra steamed greens on top. Leftovers can be re-heated in some broth with a squeeze of lemon for a hearty soup. I make a big batch and use it throughout the week, often taking a portion to work in my new tiffin tin.

Do use dried (unsweetened) coconut if you can’t or don’t want to get and smash a fresh, whole one.

makes enough for 4 as a side dish

1 tbs oil

2 tbs ghee (or butter)

1 small onion

1 medium size potato (200g ish)

140g / 1 cup frozen peas

40g fresh coconut (or 40g / ½ cup dried coconut)

2 small, red, dried chilis (depending on how how you like it!)

20-25g fresh ginger (a thumb-sized piece)

large bunch (40g) fresh mint – save a few leaves for garnish

200g / 1 cup rice

1 1/2 tsp salt

Heat a large saucepan with oil and ghee on a medium heat. Roughly chop onion in food processor then sautée for 3-4 minutes. Dice potato, add to pan with peas, allow to cook for 5 minutes.

In the same food processor, finely blend coconut, chilis and ginger with 60ml / 1/4 cup water, then blend again with the mint leaves, until it makes a kind of pesto.

Rinse rice in a sieve and give it a good shake to remove excess water. Add mint paste to the pan, along with the rice, salt and 375ml water (1½ cups). Bring to a boil, stir, then cover and cook on a low heat for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow to sit for 10 minutes for the rice to finish steaming – do not remove the lid! Fluff up the rice with a fork, serve warm.

lamb, apricot and fennel meatballs

7 Jan

persian lamb apricot meatballs

These lamb and apricot meatballs are so delicious that I have made them three times in three weeks. They have a light texture with a touch of sweetness, complemented by earthy, toasted fennel seeds and fresh, chopped dill. Called koofteh in Iran, kofta or kefta elsewhere, the word means to punch or to pummel, which  is how you treat the mixture, squashing and punching the meat until the fibres all but dissolve, blending with the apricot and onion for a more airy result. The cooked meatballs are finished with a yoghurt sauce, a drizzle of pomegranate molasses and a handful more dill.

I learned the recipe at a cooking class in London with Sabrina Ghayour. Her food was a modern take on the traditional Iranian, fresher and lighter. One thing we learned was that Persian food often contrasts fruit with meat; she made an incredible lamb and quince stew too. You can read her writing in the Guardian, which has an alternative meatball recipe with dried cherries or cranberries instead of apricots.

Serve these koofteh as party snacks – with kebab sticks making them into ‘lollipops’ as Ghayour calls them – and they will disappear in minutes. Equally nice for a meal with rice (Persian-style with a crispy bottom layer, or tah dig) or with flatbread and a simple salad.


Persian lamb, apricot and fennel meatballs

from Sabrina Ghayour – her book Persiana is out now. She recommends using latex gloves for this recipe as you need to bring the mixture together by hand, and the turmeric can temporarily stain your fingers. And it seems like a lot of fennel seeds but it works!

makes 30-40 depending on size – serves 6 with other dishes alongside

500g minced lamb

1 small onion

150g dried apricots

50g fennel seeds

2 eggs

2 tsp turmeric

20g fresh dill, chopped

2 tsp flaky sea salt

ground black pepper

to serve: yoghurt, pomegranate molasses, nigella seeds/black sesame seeds, more chopped dill

If you have a food processor, use it to finely chop the onion and dried apricots. Otherwise, do so by hand. Toast the fennel seeds in a dry frying pan until golden and fragrant. Grind in a mortar and pestle (or my home equivalent, a thick mug and a rolling pin).

Tip all ingredients into a large bowl and squash together with one hand. (Use latex gloves if you have some.) Punch the mixture until the meat almost disintegrates. Taste to check the seasoning – add more salt and pepper if necessary. (You can fry or microwave a small amount if you don’t want to test raw meat.) Roll into even balls. At this point the meatballs can be refrigerated to fry up later.

Heat a large frying pan with enough olive oil to cover the pan. When a drop of water sizzles in the oil, add the meatballs, trying not to crowd them too much. Fry the meatballs to a nice brown on one side, flip them all carefully and carry on, shaking the pan once or twice so they cook evenly. Cut one open to see if fully cooked. If you are making a big batch, brown the meatballs and arrange on a baking tray to finish off in the oven.

To serve: thin some yoghurt down with some water or olive oil to the texture of thick cream. Arrange the meatballs on a platter and drizzle the yoghurt sauce on top. Follow with a drizzle of pomegranate molasses (or sweet tamarind sauce or even honey) then shower with chopped dill and nigella or sesame seeds for colour.

If serving as a snack, stick wooden kebab skewers or toothpicks in each one. If it is part of a meal, serve with a salad, flatbread and extra yoghurt sauce.



macaroni and three cheeses

2 Nov

macaroni cheese, candles

Maybe you had a bad day. Maybe you came home tired and needed to take off your shoes and your smile. Maybe your day was fine, right up until someone asked, really asked, how was your day? and instead of saying, yes, fine, you cry unapologetically for an hour. Maybe you just wept while they reassured you, feeling selfish to be sad, but without the energy to protest. Maybe because you didn’t resist, their words washed over you and into you and made you cry again, but in relief.

By this time it is probably nearly ten o’clock, and you are tired and your cheeks are tight with salt tears, the opposite of a day at the beach. But something they said stuck with you, take care of yourself first. Make your own bed, serve yourself something you would cook for two.

If you are hungry now, or at least curious for food, you boil the kettle, heat a pot with water, salt. Stare at the water blankly. Then you look through the cupboards for something to eat – rice, potatoes, bulgur wheat. Is there any pasta? Please be pasta. Tip some elbow things, macaroni, into the boiling water, enough for one, two. Serve yourself something as nicely as if it were for someone else as well. There is just a tablespoon of butter, enough for a roux with a tablespoon of flour. Cook, stirring, in a small saucepan until nutty, then whisk in a cup of milk a little at a time. Maybe you spill some of the milk, but you don’t cry again.

There are odds and ends of cheese in the fridge from different adventures: stinky Epoisses, smoked Idiazabal, Cashel blue. You spend a minute grateful for your wanderings. Crumble or grate the cheese, and toast a few walnuts in the oven. By now the pasta is cooked, the béchamel thick, speckled with nutmeg and pepper. A bit lumpy, you don’t care. It all goes into a little baking dish – macaroni, cheese, sauce, walnuts – more grated cheese on top and into the still hot oven. You may still be tired, eyelids at half-mast, but your curiosity and appetite have been piqued. You might have made something truly delicious.

There is exactly one glass of red wine left from the night before. The pasta takes seven minutes to brown on top, which is all you need. Lettuce, dressing. By ten thirty you have dinner. Eat straight out of the baking dish, candles lit. Comfort food for company, for one.

NOPI’s burrata with peaches and coriander seeds

15 Sep

peaches, burrata, nopi

Being grown-up means eating Coco Pops whenever you want. It means buying unfashionable clothes for comfort. It starts with a desire to move to the countryside.

Being grown-up seems to mean more responsibilities, more spreadsheets. Except that when we were children, we didn’t dream of more chores, but more choices.

I have been canvassing friends for their opinion on adulting, whether they consider themselves to have reached adulthood yet or not. I got silly and sensible answers, each with a ring of truth. Mostly they didn’t revolve around the obvious milestones – marriage, children, graduation – they were instead more intangible realities. Like being in a position to teach an intern, to explain an illness, to create a new life in a new country. Not feeling guilty about not finishing projects. The freedom to drink a beer in your own garden.

At least this last week, my idea of being an adult has included:

Going out to dinner at my favourite restaurant in London, Ottolenghi’s NOPI. I had been once before, with friends and family, for my 22nd birthday. This time I paid, and it was worth every penny. We had polenta truffle chips, blackened aubergine with basil, one shortrib with caramelised horseradish, the lightest courgette fritters, and of course, the burrata, with peaches and coriander seeds. Going home with the recipe book, gilt-edged, like a precious manuscript.

Spending an afternoon in the Luxembourg gardens with ice cream, talking about adulthood, memories, the initial sparks of a friendship. A second ice cream on the same day, as a treat for an excitable three-and-a-half year old, and for us as well, because why not? This involved waving at metros (and the driver waving back!) and making ourselves moustaches out of the black sesame ice cream.

Taking the time to queue at the Italian delicatessen, to buy pancetta, pecorino, scamorza, delivered fresh from Italy the day before. Buying extra burrata, knowing that we would be having it on Sunday anyway. Not taking the time to sit down to eat it, tearing it apart while standing up in the kitchen with my flatmate. (We both rate burrata as our number favourite cheese of all time. If you have never had it before, it is like a generous mozzarella with an extra creamy centre. If you have never had it before, we may not be able to be friends with you. True friendship, as previously defined in our household: allowing the other person to eat more than half the burrata.)

Cooking nicely presented meals for one, spaghetti cacio e pepe, with a neat green salad.

The film Youth, by Paolo Sorrentino. Trampolining as a sport. A sculpture class. Speeding through Paris on a bike, and noticing a dozen things from my new perspective.

A meeting of the Grape Leaves Club, leaning on the kitchen counters, glass of white wine in hand, as we sterilised jars, simmered plums and sugar, and ladled jam into jars. Teaching the above almost-four year old to say JAM for confiture. Sitting down to supper and nearly weeping with laughter at some inanity. A moment of quiet as we each took a bite of our first course, burrata again, seasoned with dukkah, and served with sliced peaches à la Ottolenghi.

In summary, adulthood for me seems to mean mostly… dairy products? So the last word to my wisest friend of three and three-quarters: “no-one knows the difference between a kid and a grown-up,” but the latter “seems to have a lot of difficult things to do.”


Burrata with peaches and coriander seeds

A simplified version of the recipe from NOPI by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ramael Scully (no lavender oil). If you can’t find fresh burrata, buy the best mozzarella you can get your hands on. And if you have some dukkah on hand, it makes for a wonderful, toasted, spicy crunch on top. Otherwise coriander seeds, as in the original recipe, are great.

serves 4-6 as a starter

2 fresh burrata, 300g each

2 peaches

olive oil, lemon juice, salt

2 tsp coriander seeds OR 2 tsp dukkah

Boil a kettle. Gently score the peach skin as if you were about to cut the peaches in quarters. Place in a bowl. Pour the hot water over the whole peaches to cover. After thirty seconds, test to see if the skin slips off. Run peaches under cold water, peel and slice thinly. Toss the slices in a little olive oil, lemon juice and salt, to taste. Toast the coriander seeds in a small frying pan until fragrant. (No need to toast dukkah as it has been toasted already.) Gently tear the burrata in half/thirds and place a piece on each plate, sprinkling the coriander or dukkah on top. Add peach slices.


To buy burrata in Paris: Cooperativa Latte Cisternino – 108 rue St Maur, 11ème / 37 rue Godot de Mouroy, 10ème/ 46 Rue du fbg Poissonière, 9ème / 17 rue Geoffroy Saint Hilaire, 5ème. Delivery from Italy on Thursdays.

greek caper-potato spread

19 Jul

greek potato caper dip, devilled eggs, carrot salad

C-O-P-C-M … Copka-mmm? Carrots, olives, potatoes, capers, what was the m? Mustard?

Little cousin and I were trying to make a mnemonic to recall the shopping list we were too lazy to write down. The greengrocer had everything, capers, olives, even the mustard. We almost forgot the bulgur wheat though, since we missed the second B in B-B-O-W-T – blueberries, bulgur, oats, walnuts, tomatoes – an essential ingredient in the grape leaf parcels the dinner was themed around.

The Grape Leaves Club was celebrating more than a year of cooking evenings (ravioli, sashimi, paupiettes de poulet….) with a summer fiesta, vaguely Mediterranean themed. A bit of Spanish-French-Italo-American-Greek (SFIAG?): ajo blanco, white almond soup and soubressade spicy sausage from Marie; oeufs mimosa, devilled eggs with homemade mayonnaise  from Jen, with her own foccacia; and grape leaves with lemon and mint, of course. Peeling carrots as the other two rolled up the leaves, talking and then not talking, listening to my little cousin hanging bunting in the other room in fits of laughter, I realised once again that the party preparation is my favourite moment. Inviting people over was a necessary (pleasant) function of liking to cook together, producing too much to eat on our own, as a three.

I was inspired by the ‘Mostly Vegetarian Greek Feast’ eaten at the Oxford Symposium* the other week: long tables lined with tarama, pita, black-eyed bean salad with tomatoes and crispy crumbs. My favourite dishes were a kind of caper spread, with the soft fluffy texture of mashed potatoes; and a carrot and olive salad, the carrot discs just cooked, crunchy, lemony, with pops of salt from the olives. The architect of the feast, Aglaia Kremezi, explained how important the right spices are for (mostly) vegetarian food. And as simple as the main ingredients were, it was the best meal of the weekend, because everything was so well-seasoned, spiced, balanced.

I haven’t bought the book (yet) but really wanted to try the caper-potato combination at home. Even though I don’t normally like capers, something about the squeaky texture. But blended with parsley and swirled into potatoes with olive oil, the sum was so much more than the (four!) parts. Tangy, salty, fresh. It is thicker than a dip, more like mashed potatoes, and could be served as a side dish, a snack, a spread. If everything else on our table hadn’t been so delectable, I would’ve just eaten it by the spoonful. Because she is a genius, Marie suggested piling it into crisp brick pastry with an egg, and frying the parcel until golden and the egg yolk is still runny.

Seriously, try it. This will be your easiest and best summer dish to take to picnics, or to eat absentmindedly from the fridge late at night, when the city finally cools down.


*The Oxford Symposium on Food and Cooking left me with pages of notes I haven’t yet written up: on the Gourmet in popular Japanese manga, on tattoos in the kitchen, on banquet scenes in medieval paintings. I will, soon. I loved pretending to be a student in lectures again, this time surrounded by people as obsessively keen as I am about food. And quite a few recipe ideas, including Greek spoon-sweets: preserved orange rind in syrup, offered to us by a pair of artists that collected the fruit from trees in different neighbourhoods of Athens.


Greek potato-caper spread

inspired by Aglaia Kremezi’s Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts – obviously you can be creative, add garlic, lemon, other herbs as well, but it is pretty amazing with just these four ingredients. 

makes a generous bowlful but still not enough!

600g potatoes

125g capers

generous handful of fresh parsley

a couple of glugs olive oil

Peel, boil and mash the potatoes. Drain the capers (reserve the brine) and blend with parsley and olive oil to make a rough paste. Mash the caper mix into the potatoes by hand: do not put potatoes in the blender or they will turn gluey. Add more olive oil and some of the brine to achieve required consistency – like loose mashed potatoes. Serve with more olive oil and chopped parsley on top.


diana henry’s japanese garlic and ginger chicken with smashed cucumber

31 Mar

Scan 5

More cookbooks! Disaster. The latest addition to my collection has not yet been added to the shelf. It lives on my sofa and I open it at random for inspiration. Let’s see:

“Beluga lentil, roast grape and red chicory salad.” Intriguing, roast grapes. An Autumn recipe in hues of violet and red. Let’s aim for Spring:

“Butterflied leg of lamb with sekenjabin.” With what? Oooh, a “Persian mint syrup.” Best with flatbread or couscous and broadbeans. Mmm. Turn the page:

“Chocolate and rosemary sorbet” on the same leaf as “Grapefruit and mint sorbet.” All of my favourite flavours!

A Change of Appetite: where healthy meets delicious is an adventure in flavour, an exploration of healthy food without austerity or preaching. It is a fresh and beautiful cookbook. There are whole seasons full of recipes, with intermittent pages of musings on grains, proper lunches, the Japanese philosophy in food. I’m afraid to say the piece on calories rang unfortunately true: eat 500 calories chocolate, skip dinner. Works out even right? Not really.

As a pastry chef, I find it hard to condone dieting. (I’d be out of a job.) And I don’t believe abstention or detoxes work long-term. But too much sugar does have an effect on my body and my mood.

Henry doesn’t ask you to diet either. Just to take a little more care, add a few more green leaves and prepare meals with tons of flavour, inspired by Japan or Iran or Bulgaria. The healthy aspect works because the recipes really pique my appetite. And Ottolenghi’s apparently; his stamp of approval is on the front cover.

The ginger and garlic chicken I served at a dinner the other day was sharp and savoury and mouthwatering. Even with the chicken all eaten, the sauce was so good my guests took more wild rice just to soak it up. The cucumber with ginger has real character too, the rare occasion when cucumber has a starring role. It was all light and fresh and just enough. Satisfying.

I have to admit that we did have a first course of eggs and spinach, and later a cheese course with three cheeses and fresh salted butter then dessert. But, France. We had modest portions of each and still didn’t feel like we had to roll home afterwards.

The garlic-ginger chicken is going into regular rotation. (Using the grated and frozen ginger leftover from my homemade ginger juice.) In fact I am going to marinate individual portions in zip-lock bags and freeze them. Then in the morning I can defrost one bag or several in the fridge, ready to bake at suppertime. Virtuous ready-meals!

Next on the list: “Spelt and oat porridge with pomegranates and pistachios.” Wish it was breakfast time already.


Diana Henry’s Japanese Garlic and Ginger Chicken with smashed cucumber

from A Change of Appetite

serves 4

8 chicken thighs (bone-in) or 4 whole chicken legs

3 1/2 tbs soy sauce

3 tbs sake or dry sherry (or in a pinch, white wine)

3 tbs dark brown sugar

1/2 tbs brown/red miso

60g fresh ginger, peeled and grated

4 garlic cloves, crushed or grated

1 tsp togarashi seasoning (or 1/2 tsp chili powder)

Smashed cucumber:

500g cucumber

2 garlic cloves, chopped

2 tsp sea salt

2 tbs pink pickled ginger, finely chopped

handful of shiso leaves, torn up (or mint)

Mix together marinade ingredients. If baking that day, preheat oven to 200C, arrange chicken in a baking dish in a single layer and pour over marinade. Let sit for at least 20 minutes while oven preheats (or a few hours in the fridge). If not, put chicken pieces in a zip-lock bag (or several), divide the marinade between them and freeze.

Bake chicken for 30-40 minutes depending on size of pieces, basting with marinade halfway. To check if the chicken legs are fully cooked, stab with a sharp knife and see if the juices run clear. If they are a little pink, carry on cooking.

Meanwhile, peel and de-seed the cucumber. Chop roughly. Put cucumber, garlic and salt in a zip-lock bag and bash it a few times with a rolling pin. This step can be done on a chopping board but is much more messy. Refrigerate until chicken is ready. Drain of any liquid and serve the cucumber topped with finely sliced pickled ginger and shiso (or mint).

jennifer mclagan’s radicchio pie

17 Feb

radicchio pie

Bitter is a recurrent theme here: grapefruit, endive, caramel… The other day in fact I took a jar of grapefruit juice, hot water and honey onto the metro: handwarmer and homemade cold cure. So I was overjoyed to receive the book ‘Bitter‘ for Christmas, with its elegant grey cardoon leaves on the cover. (I also love grey: poppy seeds, black sesame desserts…) Jennifer McLagan peppers her cookbook with poetry, quotations and thoughtful essays on taste and flavour. I especially liked her discussion on the word itself, bitter, one that doesn’t have enough synonyms when it comes to writing about food. The Japanese word, shibui,she writes, means a kind of tangy bitterness. A quick thesaurus search in English gives ‘harsh, sour, acid, astringent, tart’ in that order, none particularly appetising except perhaps the last. (Yesterday I had to teach French flatmate that it was acceptable ‘to get tarted up’ but not to be a tart. In French the quiche gets the dubious honour of comestible-used-as-an-insult. Etre une quiche means to be an idiot.)

radicchio leaves

I have bookmarked the Seville orange and whiskey marmalade and the homemade tonic water; I approved of the grapefruit and Campari sorbet (one of my favourite cocktails). I was intrigued by the beer jelly, made in ice-cube trays to serve a piece or two with rich, fatty starters like smoked pepper mackerel. And straightaway, I bought some radicchio for her savoury tart with prosciutto, fontina and a hint of ginger. It should have had lard in the pie-crust but in typical French fashion the butchers at the market first asked about our intentions, and then refused to sell it to us since it was the wrong kind for pastry. And no, we couldn’t try it anyway. A substitute of butter and a little duck fat, always on hand in the south of France, was more than acceptable. The pie was delicious straight out of the oven, a complex bitter taste, the wilted radicchio with melted cheese and crisp pastry. (Served with a salad of Belgian endives, of course.) And it was even better the next day as a snack by the fire, with a glass of Campari and apple juice.

radicchio half

Jennifer McLagan’s Radicchio Pie

serves 4 as a light lunch with salad

250g plain flour

3/4 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

125g cold butter or leaf lard

75ml cold water


75g fatty prosciutto or pancetta

400g radicchio

1 leek

1 tbs balsamic vinegar

2 tsp grated fresh ginger

1 1/2 tsp salt

a few generous grinds pepper

125g Fontina or mozzarella cheese, grated

1 egg

2 tbs fine breadcrumbs

Dice the cold fat (butter or lard) and rub it into the flour, baking powder and salt until the flakes of butter are no bigger than peas. (You can do this step in the food processor.) Stir in the cold water and bring the pastry together into a ball with your hands. Wrap in clingfilm, flatten into a square and chill, in the fridge for at least 30 minutes or in the freezer for 10.

Roughly chop the prosciutto or pancetta and cook in a large frying pan for 2 minutes while you chop the radicchio and leek. Add them to the pan and cook on high heat for 3-5 minutes to wilt the vegetables. Stir in the grated ginger, salt, pepper and balsamic and tip out onto a plate or tray to cool.

Preheat oven to 180C.

Roll the pastry out into a large rectangle, approx 30x40cm. Slice in half, but so that one rectangle is slightly wider than the other (approx 19 and 21cm). Place smaller rectangle on a baking sheet lined with baking paper and brush some egg around the pastry in a 2cm border. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs all over the pastry apart from the egg.

Gently squeeze any extra liquid out of the cooled radicchio. Stir in the grated cheese. Spread the radicchio over the breadcrumbs, then carefully roll the second rectangle of pastry over the top. Press down around the edges with your fingertips, then use a fork to mark the border. If you have any scraps of pastry, cut out some leaves or designs to go on top. Egg wash all over and prick the top a few times with a sharp knife to let out any steam.

Bake for 30-35 minutes until nice and golden, crisp and shiny. Serve warm – also great reheated the next day.

thoran (keralan cabbage and coconut with turmeric and mustard seeds)

27 Jan


I wrote every day in India. I kept a mental list of images, faces, phrases until I could scribble them down at night or on the train. Reading them back makes me feel a little dizzy, but grateful for the sketches that unlock past hours and days.

The diary entry from 11th January 2014 – more than a year ago already! – is marked ‘Kochi’ and ‘Cooking Class with Leelu’. There are recipes: Traditional Keralan Fish Curry, Masala Tea, Pumpkin Curry, Aubergine Curry, Thoran and Chapatis. And I wrote down all of the asides as well as cooking instructions. “You are sweating? I am sweating, see. Hot!”

It was hot: eight of us crowded into Mrs Leelu’s kitchen. She was perched on a stool, explaining ‘masala’ (a mix of spices); showing us the powerful Indian wet-dry grinder; letting us taste shredded fresh coconut. She made three curries and let us each roll and cook a chapati until black and blistered. She told us about her son’s wedding, Protestant, no alcohol. One thousand people had been invited; she had ordered 1200 meals to be sure. “If I will be in the kitchen, how will I enjoy?” She learned cooking after her marriage, from listening to her mother instruct the servants. (My diary entry for the Mattancherry Palace tells me that Kerala is a matrilocal society: the wife stays with her family after marriage and the family name and property is passed down through the mother. Which meant that historically, women were more likely to be educated, to learn Sanskrit) Mrs Leelu was jovial and lively, her eyes full of fun. And her cooking efficient and bold. The other English couple in the room raised their eyes at the amount of salt that went into one of the curries and asked questions like, “Ooh I don’t know if you can find coriander powder in England?” and “Can you substitute lemon for tamarind?” (Of course you can. But it would be a different dish. And I am all for substitutions and inventions – after trying the original once. Maybe buy some of the spices before you leave, there’s an idea. I didn’t say any of that. Just wrote everything down for posterity.)

When we sat down to eat, still hot but with a happy anticipation of the feast before us, we each had to reclaim our own chapati, some rounder than others. Mrs Leelu asked us to pick a favourite dish: mine was unquestionably the thoran, a finely grated cabbage dish tempered with fresh coconut and ginger. It is like a refreshing slaw, only cooked for five minutes to take away the raw bite. Warmed up with turmeric and cumin, it is nevertheless a mild side dish to serve alongside a fiery curry. The carrot in the mix adds colour, the mustard seeds a decorative speckle like vanilla in desserts.

Later, back at the hotel, when we had packed – it was our last night as a four before I went north – we shared the quarter-bottle of white wine saved from the plane on arrival. It had been a mostly alcohol-free holiday, more tea and trains and sunburn than anything else. We toasted its success. (Then I was delegated to kill the cockroaches in the bathroom before we went to sleep.)

I would happily do the two weeks in Kerala all over again, to the letter: Wayanad, Alappuzha, Munnar, Kochi. Mrs Leelu’s class was in the latter, in the heart of the old city. It is mostly demonstration, but you get to eat everything at the end. And she is very entertaining.


Thoran (Keralan cabbage and coconut with turmeric and mustard seeds)

serves 5-6 as a side-dish

Can apparently be made with all kinds of vegetables: carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, unripe plaintain, potato, courgette. So use whatever you have on hand. Adjust cooking time and quantity of water accordingly: more for potatoes, less for courgettes.

100g carrot (one large)

300g cabbage

1 small red onion

15g ginger (piece roughly the size of top joint of thumb)

1 small chili (depending on what kind – I used 2 tiny bird’s eye chilis)

1/2 – 1 tsp turmeric powder

1/2 – 1 tsp cumin

1 tsp salt or to taste

100g (roughly 1 cup) shredded fresh coconut

OR 80g dessicated coconut + 60ml coconut milk

60ml (1/4 cup) water

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 tsp coconut oil

If fresh coconut is unavailable, use dessicated (unsweetened coconut milk) and soak it for 20 minutes in coconut milk to rehydrate it.

Peel carrot, onion and ginger. Using a food processor, finely grate them with the cabbage and chili. Heat the grated mixture, turmeric, cumin salt and coconut in a large saucepan for 5-10 minutes. Taste: it should be nicely warmed through and no longer taste raw. Add extra spices or salt if necessary. In a small saucepan, heat the coconut oil and mustard seeds until they start to pop, then tip onto thoran and mix in. Serve warm as a side. Also nice cold the next day as a salad.

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