Slow cooking with Rachel Roddy: from Five Quarters to Two Kitchens

Autumn has definitely arrived in full force. The trees are flaming red, russet and gold; the nights are growing darker; my boots have been re-heeled and two new cardigans have been ordered. So it seems remiss of me not to have mentioned a favourite food writer who has accompanied me in the kitchen during spring, summer and, more latterly, into October. I am speaking of Rachel Roddy, whose recipes I turn to in her Guardian column and her two books, Five Quarters dedicated to Rome and Two Kitchens split between Rome and Sicily. 

I recently heard Angela Frenda, Food Editor of Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, speak of the absence of food writing in Italy. There is a strong tradition of restaurant criticism, she said, and there are many cookbooks, but the stories that accompany recipes are not told. Rachel Roddy, though not Italian herself, is changing matters by setting down the family tales and traditions that are inseparable from Italian cookery. 

What differentiates Rachel from other food writers is the clarity of her own voice and the voices of the Italian people from whom she takes inspiration. Her recipes don’t always grab me immediately, but I am slowly pulled in by her evocative, seductive writing - perhaps by a story of the local trattoria, or a local market trader, or a neighbour. A friend of mine asks her other half to read Rachel’s writing aloud, because of its mellifluous tone and ability to transport the reader (or the listener) to Italy. 

Rachel’s books are not those that I cook from most often, and they rarely introduce new ingredients or flavours, yet they do reinforce an approach to life and to food that I adore - unhurried, mindful, rooted in the seasons. Just as reading her words aloud is soothing for the ears, cooking and eating her recipes is soothing for the whirring brain. Cooking courgettes gently in olive oil and water until they are almost collapsing can calm your soul; eating them with silky strands of mozzarella and hunks of bread calms the stomach. 

Rachel’s recipes are typically composed of a few simple ingredients, but ones which bring the most joy: vegetables, cheese, pasta, pulses, sometimes butter, always olive oil. A baked pasta with ricotta and spring vegetables brought me much popularity amongst my friends this summer. Who couldn’t find happiness in huge shells of pasta filled with lemon- and parmesan-flecked ricotta, tangled with sweet peas and ribbons of courgettes, then baked in a béchamel sauce?

My vegetable-focussed style of cooking means that I do not often explore Rachel Roddy’s meat recipes, but simplicity abounds here, too. Chicken in breadcrumbs, served with mashed potatoes and peperonata (red pepper stew), was one of the most comforting dinners in recent memory.

It is not just an appreciation for simple ingredients, but Rachel’s slow approach to cooking these ingredients, that produces the most delicious flavours. There is caponata, rested for an hour, ideally three; pepperonata, cooked for 30 minutes until thick and jammy; cherries softened for 12 minutes in a syrup of red wine and bay. She exhorts you to take time and care making pasta - kneading it until smooth the rhythm of your favourite music, then letting it relax awhile before rolling. 

This is not to say that all Rachel’s recipes take a long time. She calls her soft almond pasticcini “coat-on biscuits”, because they can be made swiftly, the moment you walk in the door, possibly still with your coat on. They’ve been popular with my family during some troubled moments this year, their lemony brightness alleviating heartache. Then there are multiple sauces that can be pulled together in the time it takes to boil your pasta. Another favourite is a kind-of Italian tuna nicoise, in which you hard boil the eggs and chop the vegetables whilst the farro cooks. 

Where speed is needed, there is no panic, but rather quick, purposeful movements. Perhaps the best example of this is the firm swoosh of egg and parmesan through cooling pasta to produce that that classic carbonara sauce, which clings to the spaghetti. Her courgette ‘carbonara’ (she avoids calling it this directly, for fear of angering purists) has brought much joy at home, many likes on Instagram and frequent requests for the recipe. 

These are just some of the Rachel Roddy recipes that I have enjoyed and I’m certain there will be many more joyful mealtimes to come. I am still planning to try the mushroom and herb tagliatelle in the Guardian and the cherry and ricotta tart from Five Quarters; I’ve bookmarked several recipes from my new copy of Two Kitchens, such as fish in tomato sauce with capers. Then, of course, there’s the recipes I’ll often return to, chief among them those soft almond biscuits and anything with pasta. 

Baked pasta with ricotta and spring vegetables
Caponata, Rachel Roddy
Soft almond biscuits, Rachel Roddy recipe
Courgette carbonara, Rachel Roddy recipe

Farmdrop: the ethical grocer?

Eating is an agricultural and an environmental act. The food we choose to eat, including where we buy it from, how we cook it and even what we combine it with on the plate, has a huge impact on farming and land use. Farmers grow to meet the demands of the way we eat, rather than the way we eat reflecting what grows best in the environment around us. 

There’s so much information on sustainable farming, from organisations like the Soil Association to the work of pioneering chefs like Dan Barber, which is often complex and sometimes contradictory. This competing advice makes ‘ethical’ food shopping tricky. I can buy veg from the greengrocer, who supports some local farmers, but it’s easier to buy organic from the supermarket… and, later, I’ll discover an article about why organic isn’t necessarily best. Sometimes, it feels like I can’t win!

With these difficulties in mind, I was interested to try out Farmdrop, the self-styled ‘ethical grocer’, which has recently expanded to Bristol and Bath. They offer fresh, locally grown produce, but also products that you can’t get nearby (from citrus fruit to miso paste). This model means you can do your shop in one place, whilst still supporting local producers - ideal for me because I’ll sometimes forgo the greengrocer or butcher for the ease of buying everything at once in the supermarket. 

Farmdrop vans, Bristol

Farmdrop’s four principles aim to re-connect us with where our food comes from and who produces it.

  1. Keep it local: Farmdrop sources food from within 150 miles, where possible. 80% of their fresh fruit and veg is sourced within 100 miles; in supermarkets just 23% comes from Britain.
  2. Put animals first: Farmdrop offers only meat from animals reared according to the highest welfare standards.
  3. Don’t trash our planet: Farmdrop endorses sustainable, environmentally sound farming techniques that preserve resources and enrich the soils for healthier animals and crops. 
  4. Never screw people: Farmdrop pays local farmers 75% of the retail price, compared to 50% from a supermarket.

You can’t deny, Farmdrop sounds fantastic - so how did the experience of shopping with them match up to their promise? I’ll start by saying that it is more expensive that a regular shop: we spent over £50 on a weekly shop for two, not including some staples we already had in (cereals, pasta, sauces). We also had to stop by the supermarket to pick up some bits we couldn’t get at Farmdrop, such as tortilla wraps. Farmdrop assures me, however, that as they expand and demand grows, they’ll be adding to their products and replacing produce from their London suppliers with more local alternatives. 

That said, if you’re lucky enough to be able to spend more on your food shop, Farmdrop is unrivalled by other supermarkets in terms of the quality of food and service. The source of every product is clearly indicated, which allows you to make informed choices about what you eat. Even beers and spirits come from small-batch, English producers. Ordering is fairly straightforward - we added to our order, though struggled to see how to remove products once selected - and it was delivered on time by a friendly chap in one of Farmdrop’s 100% electric vans. Customer service seems to go the extra mile: when a bag of sweet potatoes was substituted for one loose potato, they sent an apologetic email within minutes and gave us a £10 voucher.

Purton House cabbage, Farmdrop
Purton House chicken, Farmdrop
Fisherman, Farmdrop

Most importantly, the food itself is delicious. The vegetables are full of flavour; the garlic is ten times bigger than the usual bulbs; the pears are perfectly ripe and sweet; the yogurt is thick, creamy and mild; in the milk you can taste just a hint of farmyard. But does Farmdrop not only benefit the customer, but also the producers behind this delicious food? I spoke to Caroline from Sole of Discretion, who supplied the fish for our delivery, to find out how this system works at the other end. Happily, it seems she has only good things to say about the ‘ethical grocer’.

“Farmdrop allows us to focus on what we do best (getting quality, ethical fish off our boats), while they focus on marketing it and getting it to you,” Caroline tells me. “They pay a fair price for our fish and, unlike a supermarket, when they run promotions they fund the offers, not us. While money isn’t everything, in a small business it certainly helps and Farmdrop really do give 75% of the sale price to us; this empowers customers to put their money into better fishing practices and be part of a movement towards recovery of fish stocks in our seas.”

Caroline has seen first hand the wider social and environmental impact of Farmdrop’s model. “The best part of working with Farmdrop is the sense of connection and knowledge that together we are all on a journey towards a better food system. Farmdrop are the voice for hundreds of small-scale producers, many of whom, without their support and support of their customers, would be struggling to survive."

Despite claiming she isn't very good at soundbites, Caroline sums up Farmdrop far more neatly than me: "Their business model rewards and protects small producers and gives households the opportunity to buy fresh, local, nutritious and socially empowering food at the click of a mouse.

Farmdrop delivery
Farmdrop box

Alice's Foolproof Flapjacks

World's best flapjacks

This recipe was first shared on British Corner Shop's blog.

My sister, Alice, has much to teach me - she is collected, self-effacing and keeps her own counsel; she is conscientious, hard-working and a great cook. Although I can’t pretend to possess her composure (I’m far too prone to blurt out the first thing that comes into my head), I hope I’ve picked up her work ethic and do pretty well with the cooking, too. When Alice cooks, it isn’t often complex or elaborate, it’s just food you really want to eat.

Her flapjacks are a great example. They are straightforward to make, yet they’re also among the recipes for which I consistently receive the most compliments. By the time a recipient’s teeth have sunk from the caramel-crisp edges to the soft, buttery centre, they’re sure to have grown a smile - often followed up by a request for the recipe. I don’t blame them - I, for one, think this recipe can’t be equalled, especially if Alice makes it. 

Elaborate iced cakes are great sometimes, but this salute to the power of just sugar, butter and oats should become a regular in your baking repertoire. 

 

 

Alice's flapjack recipe

 

Ingredients

  • 4oz brown sugar - either soft brown or demerara work 
  • 6oz butter, cut into cubes
  • 8oz chunky oats
  • 4tbsp golden syrup
  • Olive oil
  • 1 standard round cake tin, approx. 18cm in diameter 

 

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 160c. Grease a round baking tin with olive oil and line the bottom with baking parchment.
  2. Melt the butter in a saucepan set over a low heat.
  3. When the butter is melted, add the sugar and golden syrup and stir until the mixture is smooth and even.
  4. Remove from the heat and stir in the oats.
  5. It should be just right, but if the mixture looks too wet, add in more oats; if the mixture looks to dry, add in more syrup.
  6. Bake in the oven for around 15 minutes until golden brown. (Tip: ovens vary, so check after 10 minutes to see if it is done and if any oats are leaking across the edge, scrape them back into the tin.)
  7. Remove and score into 8 pieces with a knife. Leave in the tin to cool for 15-20 minutes. 
  8. Turn out onto a chopping board and leave to go cool completely before cutting into 8 pieces - if you try to cut it too soon, it will crumble!

Courgette recipes: from one vegetable, a week of good eating

Courgette. Glut. If we played a word association game, surely these two would appear together? The summer season is upon us, when gardeners must harvest their courgettes several times a week for the plants to remain productive. It’s a time of year when, for courgette growers, every meal has courgettes on the side and every friend receives a courgette delivery. 

Yet one man’s glut is another’s gift. I adore these dark green vegetables, speckled with paler spots and suffused with a delicate flavour. They are delicious eaten simply - thinly sliced or peeled into strips and dressed in oil as part of a salad, with a grain and mild cheese. Yet they are also very versatile and can be used to add softness, both of flavour and texture, to many more complex dishes. 

However, much as I like courgettes, when my partner's grandparents sent us no less than twelve one Sunday, I struggled to think of ways to keep them interesting over the course several meals. I turned to my favourite food writers and my own back-catalogue for inspiration. And so, from one type of vegetable, I created a week's worth of meals - as well as leftovers for lunches and a cake for elevenses or afternoon tea. 

 

Courgette kofta (Meera Sodha)

A fresh, summery curry. Lightly spiced courgette kofta bask in the warmth of the ginger and tomato sauce. Leftover kofta are great wrapped in a flatbread, with a little of the tomato sauce, a swish of yogurt and some crunchy greens. The recipe is available in Fresh India. 

Courgette kofta (Meera Sodha)

 

Courgette carbonara (Rachel Roddy or Diana Henry) 

This dish has all the creaminess of carbonara, but is lighter and fresher. The mild sweetness of the courgettes works particularly well to counterbalance the rich egg and the saltiness of cheese. Rachel's recipe is available in Five Quarters or online here; Diana's recipe is available in Simple. 

Courgette carbonara (Diana Henry/Rachel Roddy)

 

Courgette, pepper and chickpea stew (Nigel Slater) 

A great weeknight dinner or packed lunch. Follow Nigel's tip to add capers, balsamic and/or herbs to intensify the juices. I eat it with a grain, such as couscous, or with a hunk of good bread to soak up the juices. I gave this recipe to a colleague last year, who recently told me that she now cooks it almost weekly - a testament to the tastiness and ease of this quick meal. The recipe is available in A Year of Good Eating or online here

Courgette, red pepper, chickpea stew (Nigel Slater)

 

Griddle courgette, burrata, fregola

This dish is quick to prepare, but still offers waves of soft, summery flavours. Courgettes, fried in oil until golden and almost collapsing, are layered with chunky fregola (I used Israeli couscous), basil and strips of creamy, milky burrata curds. A squeeze of lemon and a little more oil complete the dish. It's light, bright meal designed for warm days. The recipe is available in Simple or online here.

Griddled courgette (Diana Henry)

 

Courgette fritters (Me) 

The crisp, golden shell of these fritters conceals a soft, squidgy centre, with the grated courgette keeping them moist and light. Try them stuffed into a pitta, with a herby yogurt dressing, salty feta and crisp salad. Leftovers will make a very fine packed lunch. Get the recipe here.

Courgette and lentil fritters

 

Stuffed courgettes (Honey & Co) 

Here, courgettes are stuffed with risotto rice, covered with foil, and steamed in the oven. Once it's in the oven, you can get on with other tasks for an hour (remembering to check and baste once), before returning to reveal the finished article. It's a gentle, fragrant dish suffused with warm spices, fresh herbs, and sweet bursts from currants and tomatoes - all lifted by the bright, clean notes of lemon. The recipe is available in Honey & Co: The Cookbook.

Baked courgettes and lemon rice (Honey & Co)

Baked pasta with ricotta, courgette and broad beans (Rachel Roddy) 

If you didn’t think it was possible to create a light, summery pasta bake, think again. Huge shells of pasta are stuffed with mild, lemon-flecked ricotta and soft green vegetables, before being bound together with béchamel. Supple strips of courgette wind around the pasta and seal in the moisture. A dish that it so delicious and comforting it will win over any friend, family member or guest. The recipe is available online here.

Baked pasta with ricotta and spring veg (Rachel Roddy)

Courgette, lemon and mascarpone cake  

If courgette in a cake sounds strange, think of the ubiquitous (and delicious) carrot cake or chocolate beetroot cake. The courgettes lend moisture and a delicate, nutty flavour, but don’t affect the texture. This recipe brings together my own ideas with inspiration from some of my favourite cooks - Nigella Lawson, Nigel Slater and Mary Berry - to create a spectacular summer cake. Get the recipe here.

Courgette, lemon and mascarpone cake

Restaurant review: Root, Bristol

I was not intending to review Root, I promise. I just visited as a normal punter, on a sunny day, with family. Yet I was so impressed, that I wanted to encourage others to visit. Go both to eat Root’s delicious food and to share in their ethos: to give vegetables the star billing and serve meat on the side in recognition of the health and environmental benefits. 

It’s quite a transformation from its previous incarnation as Chicken Shed. Root shows that one or two vegetables can be the whole, bold centrepiece, rather than just the side to a slab of protein. There are three meat additions, but they are presented at the bottom of the menu as, typically, a side salad would be. On this occassion, we are not tempted by meat and share five-six veggie small plates between two.

We are immediately won over by the first dish, gnocchi. Four pillowy, parmesan-streaked little dumplings spring a little in the mouth before softly falling apart. They are robed in fresh green - a pool of herby oil beneath, and a tangled curl of raw courgette strips above. I could have eaten a huge plateful of these alone and left very happy, but there is more to come.

Courgette gnocchi, Root
IOW tomatoes, ewe's curd, breadcrumbs

If anything could out-summer the courgettes, it would be the next dish of Isle of Wight tomatoes. They speak of sunshine. There are firm slices of large, deep-red tomatoes; small yellow cherries that burst in the mouth; and crimson tomatoes, skin peeled, that slide more sleekly on the tongue. They are the star players, with the delicate, tangy ewe’s curd and salty breadcrumbs in dripping there only to intensify the vegetable’s sweetness. 

Another favourite is cauliflower steak, which has been blistered to bring out its sweet, nutty flavour - a flavour heightened further by the smattering of caramelised cashews. A rich pool of cashew cream and, by contrast, fresh cauliflower shavings, bring this together into a complete dish. 

Cauliflower steak, cashews
Cauliflower steak, cashews (2)

There are also thick, rectangular corn chips that are crispy on the outside and satisfyingly stodgy in the centre, paired with romesco. I like my romesco a little thicker, crunchier, punchier, but it was perky enough. Across the table a cider rarebit and onion croquettes both ooze cheese. 

And, finally, a striking barley risotto proves the adage that one eats with the eyes. An orb of golden yolk is surrounded by a galaxy of brown-flecked green risotto. It is less of a smooth, sticky whole than its rice cousin, more of a thin sauce binding together chewy barley. Yet it is no less rich and it grows richer still when the confit yolk is pierced to streak through the grains. We are grateful for the fresh parsley flavour and the crisp puffed rice to cut through the richness.

Barley risotto
Barley risotto (2)

It’s all pretty delicious. If I was being picky, I’d point out that the service was slow - we waited a long time to order and to pay the bill - but the waitress was very friendly. She tells us the restaurant is no busier than Chicken Shed, but the style of service is different. Whilst previously she worried about manning queues out the door, she’s enjoying spending more time with customers as part of the new table service. 

We didn’t stay for puddings this time, but I’ll definitely be returning for the eton mess with cherry and the treacle sponge topped with fudge and crème fraîche ice cream. This food is flavoured with the summer season and I can’t wait to visit again throughout the year to taste what they do with autumn, winter and spring.

Root, Bristol

Restaurant review: Wilsons, Bristol

It’s a typical British summer’s day (i.e. pissing it down) when we visit Wilsons, a little restaurant in Bristol with a big reputation to live up to. There has been copious praise in local and national press alike for the excellent food served in this simple white dining room.

Wilsons - amuse bouches

I’m not about to disagree with these reviews, but rather to suggest there is something more at play here. Yes, the decor is simple and the food does taste great, but the same could be said of many restaurants. So what is it that makes Wilsons feel so special? Wilsons, similarly to my other favourite restaurants, has another dimension to commend it: it feels very genuine.

The dining room is plain, but this is for genuine utilitarian reasons - other than a huge vase of blooms, the space is designed with practicality and (I suspect) affordability in mind, rather than to meet some on trend, ‘rustic’ look. The food is delicious, but it doesn’t boast of being so. Each ingredient speaks modestly of itself so the dishes come together as a chatter of complimentary flavours.

This sympathetic balance of flavours is evident from the first sip of our aperitif: vodka infused with tart rhubarb and rose (just a hint, no soapiness here), champagne, and gentle sweetness rising from a pool of honey. There are delicate amuse bouches, too. Radishes with whipped iberico; tomato consume that tastes of concentrated summertime; and, our favourite, squid ink crackers with smoked cod’s roe. 

If this is just the curtain being lifted, surely the concert will be exquisite?

Wilsons starter - peach, courgette, goat's curd, mint
Wilsons starter 2 - wood pigeon gyoza

To start, we eat soft, yielding wood pigeon gyoza and crunchy little peas in a deeply satisfying broth, suffused with sweet, salty and meaty flavours. By contrast, there is a bright salad of yellow courgette, peach, goat’s curd and mint-infused oil. There’s little cooking in this dish, but much respect for the produce. Here’s a chef who understands that, to give diners the very best of an ingredient, you may need to leave it untouched. Sometimes, a cook can’t produce a better flavour than nature. 

Loveliness continues to abound. A fillet of cod, still quivering, supports more assertive flavours of clams, monk’s beard and fennel, all awash in a striking black pool of squid ink, whose deep, rounded, indescribably umami flavour catches the ingredients together.  Across the table, a plate of girolles, courgette, artichoke, borlotti and egg proves that most things taste better when bathed in butter and yolk. Its liberal truffle shavings are a little too boisterous - a lighter covering would have been ideal.

Wilson's main course 1 - cod, clams, fennel squid ink
Wilsons main course 2 - vegetables, egg, truffles

As I pass the kitchen on the way to the toilet, Jan Ostle (co-owner and Head Chef) shouts hello. After I gush about the pigeon gyoza, he tells me with pride about shooting the birds himself in a move towards self-sufficiency. Later, Jan delivers the dessert to our table, perching on the windowsill to chat more about their growing focus on sustainability - they’ve recently started to grow their own vegetables, too. 

“My wife is so amazing,” he says of his partner and co-owner Mary, who isn’t there on the evening of our visit. “She works so hard on our plot of land and she’s also raising our child.” 

If anything could endear us more to Jan than his humility, it would be the dessert he leaves us with: an intense chocolate delice. There are vivid layers of sharp, lip-puckering blackcurrant and bitter dark chocolate, with a little yogurt ice-cream to lighten the mood. It strides fearlessly across the palate and embeds itself in the memory. 

This dessert proves that, whilst the flavours at Wilsons are carefully balanced, they certainly are not tentative. Quietly confident cooking creates confident tasting dishes. When the food is this good, it speaks so assuredly for itself that there’s no need to shout.

Wilsons main course 1 - cod, claims, fennel, squid ink (2)
Wilsons starter 2 - wood pigeon gyoza (2)

Layered lunches: planning ahead for a week of good eating

Lentil fritters 2
Bulgar wheat salad 1

We often struggle to recognise our own strengths, but one of mine is organisation. Sometimes it feels more of a weakness - for instance, if a friend changes plans at the last minute, my organised mind struggles to adjust. But most of the time, organisation plays to my advantage. Never more so than in the preparation of packed lunches, which have often been the envy of my colleagues.

I am frequently asked how I put together my packed lunches and the secret is layering. I batch cook different layers - a base, vegetable, topping and dressing - and store them in the fridge, ready to be thrown together each day. Below are two of my favourite layered lunches, including seasonal suggestions for the vegetable 'layer' to see you through the year. 

With just a little preparation at the beginning of the week, you can feel smug about your delicious lunch as others resort to a sad supermarket sandwich. These days, I’m feeling even more smug as I transport my lunches in the new, sustainable bamboo lunch boxes from Leon (pictured below). 

*These recipes make enough for four portions, after which the food won’t keep well. When Friday comes around, I like to treat myself to lunch from a local food stall or cafe.*


Lentil and veg fritters, feta, herby lime yogurt

These fritters have recently been a staple on our table. Light, gently spiced, with a crisp shell that gives way to a squidge in the centre, they never fail to please. They are perfect stuffed into a pitta with salty feta, crunchy salad leaves and a bright yogurt dressing.  Makes around 12 fritters (enough for 3 per day). 

Base:

  • 1 small red onion, diced
  • 1 garlic clove, diced
  • 2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp tumeric
  • 1 tin green or brown lentils
  • 1 egg
  • 20g dill
  • 20g parsley
  • 100g breadcrumbs
  • Salt and pepper

Vegetable:

  • 250g courgettes (1-2 medium courgettes)
  • 100g broad beans

Topping:

  • Feta (or another soft cheese, such as goat’s cheese or ricotta)
  • Pittas
  • Lettuce (optional)

Dressing:

  • 100g plain Greek yogurt 
  • Zest and juice of 1 lime
  • 1/2 tsp cumin, toasted
  • Drop of honey
  • 2 tsp each of dill and parsley (set aside from the base ingredients)
  1. Grate the courgettes and place them in a sieve over the sink while you prepare the other ingredients.
  2. Add 1 tbsp of olive oil to a large frying pan set over a low-medium heat. Once warm, gently cook the red onion for 10 minutes until soft and starting to turn golden. Add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the spices and fry for a further minute. Remove from the heat.
  3. Meanwhile, boil the broad beans for 3 minutes, drain and, once cool, slip the beans from their skin. Finely chop the dill and parsley. Set 2 tsp of each aside in a small bowl for the dressing.
  4. Add the lentils, breadcrumbs and beaten egg to a food processor and blend until just mixed. Add the onion mix and pulse until it is incorporated. Tip into a bowl and fold through the herbs, courgette and broad beans. Season to taste and stir. 
  5. Wipe the frying pan clean. (Now is a good time to toast the cumin for the dressing, then set aside in the bowl with the herbs). 
  6. Put a thin layer of olive oil in a pan set over a medium-high heat. When hot, use two tablespoons to scoop small mounds of the mixture into the pan, flattening slightly. Fry for 4 minutes on each side or until golden. You will need to fry them in two or three batches depending on the size of your pan.
  7. Meanwhile, make the dressing by whisking together all of the ingredients in a small bowl, including the herbs that you set aside earlier.
  8. Once cooled, place the fritters and the dressing into separate containers and store in the fridge until ready to use. 

To assemble: If warming the fritters, re-heat in a pan or under the grill so they stay crispy. Warm your pitta in the oven or a toaster. Stuff with the fritters, feta and lettuce, and drizzle with a generous spoonful of the dressing. 


Seasonal vegetable variations:

Winter: 

  • Cauliflower (cut into small florets; boil until al dente or roast in a little oil until golden) 
  • Kale or cabbage (thinly shredded and steamed or boiled)

Spring: 

  • Broccoli (cut into small florets, boiled or steamed until al dente) 
  • Spring greens (shred finely, steam until wilted or fry gently in a little oil until wilted)

Summer (as above): 

  • Courgettes (grated)
  • Broad beans (boiled and shelled)

 

Autumn: 

  • Roasted squash (dice into small cubes, season, roast until soft) 
  • Leeks (thinly slice, gently fry in a little oil until golden)
Lentil fritters 3
Lentil fritters 1

Bulgar wheat salad, goat’s cheese, lemon and pomegranate dressing

This bulgar wheat salad is a lighter, more sprightly option for lunch. The nutty grain is suffused with the juice from the roasted vegetables and the sharp-sweet dressing. Its especially good with goat’s cheese - or any soft cheese - crumbled on top to turn it into a fuller, more balanced meal. 

Base: 

  • 240g bulgar wheat (other grains also work well - couscous, quinoa, farro, pearl barley and brown rice. Adjust cooking times according to the packet instructions)
  • 20g flat leaf parsley

Vegetable:

  • 450g courgettes (2-3 medium courgettes)
  • 400g ripe cherry tomatoes
  • Olive oil
  • Lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper
  • Chilli flakes

Dressing:

  • 4tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp pomegranate molasses 
  • Salt and pepper 

Topping:

  • Goat’s cheese (or another soft cheese, such as ricotta or feta)
  • Little gem lettuce (optional)

 

  1. Preheat the oven to 180c.
  2. Slice the courgette into 1cm coins and place on a baking tray with the tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil, season well with salt, pepper and a pinch of chilli flakes. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes until the courgettes are golden brown and the tomatoes are bursting. 
  3. While the vegetables are roasting, place the bulgar wheat into a small pan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and cook for 8-10 minutes, until it is just tender. Drain and leave to cool, before gently using a fork to mix through the flat leaf parsley, a squeeze of lemon juice and a little olive oil.
  4. Whisk all the dressing ingredients together and pour into a jam jar or small pot. 
  5. Once cooled, place each element - the bulgar wheat, roasted vegetables and dressing - into a separate container and store into the fridge until ready to use.

 

To assemble: Whisk the dressing with a fork if separated slightly.  Take one quarter of the bulgar wheat and vegetables. Drizzle with a spoonful or two of dressing and mix gently. Lay the bulgar salad on a bed of lettuce (optional). Crumble over the goat’s cheese.


Seasonal vegetable variations:

Winter: 

  • Root vegetables (dice into small cubes, season, roast until soft) 
  • Kale or cabbage (shred finely, steam until wilted or toss in oil and add to the root vegetables for the last 10 minutes)

Spring: 

  • Asparagus or purple sprouting broccoli (steamed or boiled until al dente)
  • Peas (fresh or frozen, boiled according to the packet instructions)

Summer (as above): 

  • Courgettes (sliced, roasted in olive oil until golden)
  • Tomatoes (roasted in olive oil until bursting)

 

Autumn: 

  • Roasted squash (dice into small cubes, season, roast until soft) 
  • Mushrooms (slice, sauté in a little oil until the water has evaporated and they are golden)
Bulgar wheat salad 2

Cargo 2 Launch: Cargo Cantina

Above the sleek, wooden bar in Cargo Cantina, next to the mighty jars of chilli, sits a stack of coloured plastic plates. They are the universal signifiers of functionality, of food eaten outside, with your hands - I’ve encountered them everywhere from family camping trips in Cornwall to the roadside restaurants in Vietnam. So they seem appropriate for a taqueria inspired by the street food stalls and tequila bars of Mexico. 

Cargo Cantina 2

When we visit, Cargo 1 and 2 (converted shipping containers) hum with the chatter of groups who gather on tables outside each restaurant, optimistically awaiting short spells of sunshine. Cantina’s tables are among the busiest. Its popularity is unsurprising, for whilst this restaurant is one of the newest openings here, its owners are well established in Bristol. Kieran and Imogen Waite run popular tapas bar Bravas and San Francisco-inspired cafe Bakers & Co, whose brunches have caught the attention of national press. 

Cargo Cantina 1
Cargo Cantina 3

Like Bravas and Bakers, Cantina is a place of noise and energy. It’s a place where groups order rounds of margaritas and cervezas, cheerful staff bustle back and forth from kitchen to terrace and passers-by peer enviously at taco-laden tables. Its informality evidently appeals to all types of diners. On our left, a family give their young daughter her first taste of spicy food; on our right, a group of twenty-somethings celebrate a special occasion. 

The atmosphere is all very well, but what’s the food like? 

The food is as colourful as the plastic plates. The headline acts are the charcoal-coloured blue corn tortillas, with five lively toppings - we order them all. My favourites appeal for opposite reasons: one vibrant and fresh, one solid and earthy. On the first, morsels of monkfish, octopus and prawn dance beneath a bright dressing of peppers, tomato and onion. The other is piled with oyster mushrooms, potato, pumpkin seeds and sweet onion, which come alive with a dash of gutsy green tomatillo salsa.

Cargo Cantina 4

The side dishes, too, make a strong case that opposites attract. There are bright, zingy offerings and deeper, richer flavours. Fresh corn is prevented from singing too sweetly by a backing choir of sharp lime and hot, green chilli; shredded cabbage shouts with mint, chilli and lime. Then there are creamy black beans that teeter on the verge of collapse, with a subtle smokiness that works well with a squeeze of (yet more) lime.  

As you may be starting to surmise, the winning formula here is to magnify high-quality, organic produce through the lens of a few key ingredients: chilli, lime and herbs. These are the flavours of Mexican street-side dining, but refined to suit a more relaxed, restaurant experience. Cargo Cantina is lively, but it’s also somewhere you can linger over a meal; so sip on another (excellent) margarita, order a stack of tacos and settle in. 

To find out about the other new openings at Cargo 2, head to some of my favourite fellow Bristol food blogs:

Cargo Cantina 5

Il Canto del Maggio: a place to halt your wanderlust

It’s 8:30 am and already 26 degrees. I’m swimming in an azure pool, which reflects the brilliant, unbroken blue sky. Before me stretches a vista of Tuscan countryside, dotted with terracotta-roofed farmhouses and bordered by mountains; behind me is the shaded eating area where, last night, we feasted on local food and wine. Its at this moment that I decide I will never tell anybody about this place, for fear of it becoming crowded with holiday goers.

The problem is that, when something is so utterly lovely, it deserves - nay, it demands - to be talked about. Whether it’s a delicious meal or a brilliant film, I find the enjoyment of a special experience is always multiplied when shared. And so, here I am writing about Il Canto del Maggio, the dreamy Tuscan B&B and restaurant where I spent just a few days in June. 

Il Canto del Maggio could calm the wanderlust of even the most eager traveller. One arrives and immediately resolves to stay in this one location forever. 

Il Canto del Maggio

Stay

Book one of Il Canto del Maggio’s shuttered apartments, which run along a steep, cobbled path in a picturesque hamlet. 

Guests receive a cheery welcome from Simona and her little dog Bice - one of several pets who make up what Simona affectionally calls her ‘zoo’. Together, Simona and Bice show us to our apartment, La Castellana, which is set over two floors and has self-catering facilities. Although the apartment is (thankfully) cool and dark, the bright walls and rustic decorations lend it a cosy, colourful feel. The huge log burner would make it even more snug on a cold winter’s evening, but in the heat of early summer we are grateful for the air conditioning. 

Just down the cobbled path from the apartments lies the restaurant and terrace, where breakfast is served (more on that breakfast later...). Return back up the path to find the swimming pool. Swim here in the morning and you might be joined by two tiny, but brave, ducklings, whilst in the evening, swallows swoop overhead. To the fore of the pool, there is a sweeping view of the Tuscan countryside. To the right, there are vine-shaded sun loungers; to the left, the kitchen garden presided over by Simona’s father, Mauro, from which guests are free to pick vegetables. Observed from every new angle, this place gets more and more picturesque. 

Il Canto del Maggio (2)

Eat

Il Canto del Maggio isn’t only a set of tranquil rooms with a picturesque pool - it is also a fantastic restaurant. Indeed, many guests travel here primarily for its reputation of fantastic food. 

Those who, like me, believe that the best days begin at breakfast, will not be disappointed. The morning meal is served al fresco on the terrace, where greenery sprawls overhead and on every side. The breakfast table buckles with homemade cakes, tarts and pastries, as well as cereals, yogurt, fruit and cheese. If you’re lucky, there might be leftover pudding from the previous night. My favourites include a crisp, buttery crostata filled with cherry jam, a barely-sweet dark chocolate cake concealing globes of apricot, and a gentle yogurt cake flecked with fruit and chocolate.

Breakfast, Il Canto del Maggio

If you think you need never eat again after breakfast, the smells that begin wafting from the wood-fired oven in the afternoon will persuade your stomach otherwise. Dinner begins at 8 with an aperitivo at the restaurant or, in summer, by the pool. Starters are served buffet style, including tarts, salads, breads, cheeses and charcuterie. The primi piatti is pasta, delicate but daringly al dente, dressed with vegetables from the garden and soft cheese; a secondi of roasted meats pleases the carnivores, but we slow down to save room for dessert. And what desserts! There is a very fine tiramisu, panna cotta, and cherry and almond crumble. Best of all, there is a dark chocolate cake with serious squidge, its dizzying richness steadied by the sharp-sweet spike from an accompanying compote.

Dinner, Il Canto del Maggio (2)
Aperitivo, Il Canto del Maggio
Dinner, Il Canto del Maggio (1)
Dinner, Il Canto del Maggio (3)
Dinner, Il Canto del Maggio (4)

Unsurprisingly, we are rarely inclined to leave Il Canto del Maggio, but we find a good gelato shop, Cassia Vetus, in nearby Terranuova Bracciolini. Just around the corner, we pick up a quarter-wheel of cheese reserved for us by Simona after we praised it at dinnertime. If visiting towns further afield, we follow her recommendations for eating out. We also pick vegetables from the kitchen garden and make use of our self-catering facilities. When the unfailingly generous Simona discovers that we are cooking pasta with courgettes, she brings us a pot of her father’s pesto. The pesto tastes of sunshine - it’s proof that a few, fresh ingredients (and lots of good olive oil) produce the best flavour.

Self catering at Il Canto del Maggio

Do

Siena, Florence, Pisa and Bologna are all close to Il Canto del Maggio. Their proximity means it is possible to make day trips, or you could spend a few days in the city before heading to this secluded countryside B&B to rest and recover. Il Canto del Maggio is also a great base for smaller Tuscan towns and cities that lack tourist crowds, but remain abundant in the rich history, architecture and art of this region. 

Loro Ciuffenna
Loro Ciuffenna (2)

Start a day trip at Loro Ciuffenna, a medieval town of two halves where coloured houses rise up from both sides of a deep ravine. We wander across the Roman bridge, visit an old mill and pick up sun-saturated tomatoes and peaches at the market. Next, head on to the almost implausibly quaint village of Borro, where you will find artisan shops and an excellent vineyard that offers wine tasting. Drive on to seductive Arezzo in time for lunch at a restaurant on one of the streets running off the spectacular Piazza Grande. After lunch, we dive from the hot afternoon into the cool, shaded buildings of the Centro Storico, where churches, towers and aristocratic houses tumble down steep streets. 

Borro
Borro (2)
Lunch in Arezzo
Arezzo (4)
Arezzo (2)

To escape the crowds altogether, head up the winding roads that lead from Il Canto del Maggio into the mountains. Here, spend a morning hiking the network of paths connecting the little towns that grow out of the hillside. Signposts are rare and often faded, so if you have somewhere you need to be, then take a good map or a guide. I was quite content to wander out and back along the same path, with no destination in mind. We began and ended in pretty Poggio di Loro, where stone houses and archways are dressed with flowerpots and painted shutters.

Poggio di Loro
Poggio di Loro (2)
Tuscany

While I was charmed by these towns and villages, I found nowhere as enchanting as Il Canto del Maggio. It is the perfect, tranquil base to return to after a day of sight-seeing, but if you roll out of bed each morning and never manage to leave, I couldn’t blame you. This is a B&B that brings wanderlust firmly to a standstill.

 

 

Courgette, lemon and mascarpone cake

Recipes are rarely unique to the writer. They have a provenance in the cultures and the people that we encounter. My recipes develop organically as I find inspiration around me. Perhaps I will adapt a method suggested in a cookbook with a flavour combination found via a friend, a food writer or a famous chef. 

This cake is a fantastic example of the complementary process of recipe development: a sponge adapted from Nigella comes together with a lemon curd from Nigel and mascarpone icing from Mary, with decorative pieces modified from BBC Good Food. Separately, each of these elements are good in their own right (I would eat the lemon curd straight from the jar). Together, though, they make the most glorious summertime cake.

The light, syrup-soaked sponge reveals rather beautiful green speckles when it is sliced. Don’t be put off by the vegetables - courgette and cake make wonderful bedfellows. You can’t taste the courgettes, but they add moisture and a delicate sweetness. I’ve added just a little sugar to the mascarpone icing, so it is not too heavy and balances the richness of the luscious, sharp-sweet curd. To take a bite of this cake is, for me, to taste sunshine. 

You can make most elements of this cake ahead. The lemon curd can be made up to a week or two in advance; the meringues, lemon slices, icing and even the sponge can be made the day before eating. On the day, you can just assemble, decorate and serve with fresh summer berries. If there's any leftover after the first (and second) helping, store in the fridge because the icing and curd can run in the heat.

Courgette, lemon and mascarpone cake (1)

 

Ingredients

Lemon curd

  • Zest and juice of 2 unwaxed lemons
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 50g butter, cut into cubes
  • 2 eggs

Mini meringues (optional)

  • 1 large egg white
  • 30g caster sugar
  • 25g icing sugar

Candied lemon

  • 100g golden or plain caster sugar
  • 1 unwaxed lemon, thinly sliced into rounds

Courgette sponge

  • 250g courgettes (1 large courgette), weighed before grating
  • 2 large eggs
  • 125ml vegetable oil
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 225g self-raising flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

Mascarpone icing

  • 250g mascarpone cheese
  • 1-2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 tbsp icing sugar, sifted
  • Fresh berries, to decorate and serve

 

Method

Lemon curd (can be made in advance)

  1. Put the lemon zest and juice, sugar and cubes of butter into a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water - make sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Stir with a whisk until the butter has melted. 
  2. Beat the eggs lightly with a fork then stir into the lemon mixture. Let the curd cook, stirring regularly, for ten minutes, until it is thick and feels heavy on the whisk. Remove from the heat and stir occasionally as it cools.
  3. If it develops some lumps from the cooked egg white, you can strain through a sieve. Pour into sterilised jars and seal. If will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge, but I never find lemon curd lasts that long!

Mini-meringues (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 100°C. Line a baking tray with non-stick baking parchment.
  2. Beat the egg white in a clean mixing bowl with an electric whisk until the mixture stands up in stiff peaks. Turn up the speed and add the caster sugar a little at a time, beating well after each addition. The mixture should look thick and glossy.
  3. Sift the icing sugar over the mixture and fold in with a big metal spoon. 
  4. With two teaspoons, scoop up a heap of mixture with one spoon and use the other to ease a small swirl onto the baking sheet. Repeat until all the mixture has been used up.
  5. Bake for 1-1  1⁄2 hours until the meringues are a pale golden colour and crisp underneath. 

Candied lemon and lemon syrup

  1. Place the sugar and water in a saucepan and heat gently to dissolve the sugar. Bring the syrup to the boil, drop in the lemon slices and simmer for 15 minutes.
  2. Carefully remove the slices from the syrup and place on a piece of baking parchment to dry. They will remain a little sticky, so if you want them to dry fully, place them on a tray lined with baking parchment and bake in the oven at a low heat (around 40-50°C) for 30 minutes.
  3. Set aside the remaining syrup.

Sponge cake

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.
  2. Wipe the courgettes with a kitchen towel (don’t peel them) and grate using the course side of a box grater. If you grate them too finely, they will turn to mush. Place them in a sieve over the sink to let any excess water drain.
  3. Put the eggs, oil and sugar in a large bowl and beat until creamy. Sieve in the flour, bicarbonate of soda and baking powder and continue to beat until well combined. Fold in the grated courgette with a large metal spoon.
  4. Pour the mixture into the tins and bake for 30 minutes, checking after 20-25 minutes. They should be golden brown and firm to the touch - a skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean. Leave to cool for 5 minutes, then turn out on a cooling rack.  
  5. Whilst the cakes are still warm, lightly pierce the top of each sponge with a fork and brush over a few spoonfuls of the lemon syrup. Leave to cool.

Mascarpone icing

  1. While the cakes are cooling, make your mascarpone icing. Beat the mascarpone in a small bowl with the sieved icing sugar and the vanilla extract, until the sugar is just incorporated and the icing is thick. Be careful not to beat too much, or the mixture may split. 

Assembly

  1. To assemble, spread half of the mascarpone icing on one sponge and decorate with your mini meringues, lemon slices and fresh berries. Fresh flowers are also nice for decoration, but make sure you check first which ones are safe to use. 
  2. Put the other sponge on a plate and spread with the remaining mascarpone icing, followed by a layer of lemon curd. Gently lift up the first sponge and place on top. 
  3. Serve with leftover berries and a big smile.

 

Courgette, lemon and mascarpone cake (2)
Courgette, lemon and mascarpone cake (3)

Recipe for a positive morning routine (inc. peach, almond & cardamom bircher)

I am a morning person. Sometimes this is a source of frustration, because I am a bad sleeper and often wake early, unable to return to slumber. Yet, mostly, I relish the early hours. My head is clearest, my ideas are brightest and my heart most hopeful in the morning.

That time before the late risers appear feels precious, almost stolen. As if I’ve somehow added some secret extra hours to my day. Perhaps I’ve braved the rain or discovered the sun on a jog, made headway on a work project or cooked a great breakfast. I’m aware that all this may change if and when I have children, but for now I savour the luxury of those calm early moments to myself.

Whether or not you’re a morning person, getting into a routine when you wake up can set you on the right course for a productive day. These are my four essentials for a positive start to the morning. Except at the weekend, of course, when I hope to be found lounging in bed with a cup of tea and a good book. 

Morning routine

Move: Head out on a run, walk round the block or follow a yoga video. I find taking some exercise first thing awakens not only my body, but also my mind. As I work my muscles, I also work through the night time’s worries or sort out plans for the day ahead. If you have a garden or can get to some nearby green space, even better. There’s nothing as restorative as the sight of green leaves against blue skies and the sounds of water flowing or birds singing. 

Hydrate: Swap your first cup of tea for a more hydrating drink, particularly if you have taken some early exercise. My favourite morning brew is hot water with fresh ginger, lemon and a squeeze of honey. The rousing kick of ginger and the zing of lemon are soothed by the sweet honey, which makes this drink a gentle wake up call each day. 

Nourish: There are plenty of studies that demonstrate the importance of a good breakfast, so I’ll leave the science to them. For me, breakfast is important because it is delicious, but it also gives me energy for a productive morning. It could be anything from a bowl of cereal to egg on toast, but make sure you choose options that you find tasty, that aren’t too sugary and feel kind to your body. Take the time to prepare and eat something you enjoy. 

My friends and social media followers will know that I eat porridge year round. In the heat of the summer, however, I am sometimes persuaded to swap to what I like to think of as ‘summer porridge’ - bircher muesli. The recipe for one of my favourite summer flavour combinations is below.

Pause: Before you hurtle into action, spend a minute or two taking stock and setting intentions for the day, or week, ahead. I usually take this moment before I begin breakfast and open my emails, but find a time that works for you. Pause, breathe and begin.

 

Bircher muesli

Peach, almond and cardamom bircher muesli

Bircher muesli is filling, healthy and easy to adapt to your palate. In this recipe I love the gentle sweetness of almonds and the sunshine of cardamom as a base for the peaches, which are my favourite summer fruit. It would also work well with nectarines and apricots. 

The majority of the recipe is made in advance, so you’ve got the joy of knowing there’s a delicious breakfast ready for you in the morning. If it’s helpful to have several days' worth of breakfasts prepared ahead, you can make a big batch and store it in the fridge for 3-4 days. Bircher is also very portable, which is ideal if you like to take breakfast to work with you. 

The recipe serves 2, but you can multiply it according.

 

Ingredients

  • 100g oats
  • A handful of chopped dried fruit (about 50g) - I like dates, sultanas, cherries and/or apricots
  • 1 tbsp ground almonds
  • 1 tbsp toasted sunflower seeds, plus extra to serve
  • 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
  • A few drops of vanilla bean extract (optional)
  • 150ml milk
  • 150ml water
  • 1 tbsp yogurt, plus extra to serve
  • 1 apple, grated
  • 1 peach, sliced or diced
  • Honey, to serve

 

Method

  1. Place the oats in a medium-sized bowl or plastic tub. 
  2. Add the dried fruit, ground almonds, sunflower seeds, cardamom and vanilla, if using.
  3. Cover with a mixture of half milk, half water (around 150ml each) and stir in the yogurt.
  4. Refrigerate overnight or for a couple of hours.
  5. Grate the apple and fold through the oats. (I add the apples in the morning so they retain their crunch, but this step can be done the night before if you need to quickly grab the muesli and head out the door).
  6. Loosen to your desired consistency with a little more milk.
  7. Place into a bowl and top with the peach, a spoonful of yogurt, a sprinkling of toasted sunflower seeds and a drizzle of honey.

Cookbook review: Practical Cookery, 1935

Household cake

In his old age, my Grandpa collected elastic bands on his walking stick. The wooden handle, worn smooth by his knobbly hands, became a mass of reds, greens and browns by the time it reached the base. So, when my mum handed me an old cookbook that was really more a bundle of tattered pages bound together with an elastic band, I could guess to whom it had belonged. Practical Cookery by Marjorie Michael had originally belonged to my Grandpa’s mother and she had handed it down to him, along with the instructions and extra recipes that he has scribbled in the margins.

My parents couldn’t understand my fascination with Practical Cookery, as I pored over the recipes and carefully reordered the pages. But, for me, this is a piece of social history. It is perhaps the closest I’ll ever get to my culinary heritage - though, as I would find out, not a heritage I necessarily wanted to claim (more on that later…). My auntie squealed with excitement, and a little sadness, when she spotted it on my bookshelf. For her, it evokes memories of my grandparents’ divorce. When my Grandpa was left to fend for himself, he turned to his mother’s book as an authority on how to get a meal to the table. 

Practical Cookery is structured around courses, from soups, to meats, vegetable dishes and eggs, through to pastry and puddings. It begins with a section entitled ‘Food Values’, which gives advice on ‘body building’, ‘energy giving’, ‘blood hardening’ and ‘bone hardening’ foods. A forerunner to Jamie’s Super Food books, if you will. Each chapter opens with hints for the cook, but otherwise instructions are direct and sparse. A level of basic knowledge is assumed that many millennials, accustomed to the handholding of modern cookbooks, have lost. The temperature of a ‘moderate’ or ‘hot’ oven, how much of a flavouring to add, what you are testing for when you skewer a cake and many other things go unexplained. In a hyper-visual culture, it’s also strange to cook from a book with no pictures. Are my potatoes browned enough? Is my sauce the right consistency? I yearn for photographic confirmation that my meals are ‘correct’.

I decide to spend a week cooking from the book. “Really?” asks my other half as he dubiously eyes a recipe for boiled tongue. I reassure him that tongue will not be on the menu - I’m interested to see how someone who follows a pescatarian diet, which is how we predominantly eat, would fare in the 1930s. As I write my rather limited weekly shopping list, I realise how fortunate I am. In my supermarket, for instance, I can buy miso to use in a marinade for aubergines, before roasting them until they are meltingly soft and suffused with a deep umami flavour. When this cookbook was written, not only would miso be unheard of, but even aubergine would have been nigh on impossible to find. And so many things that I use regularly to create fragrant vegetarian curries - fresh chilli, cumin, coriander, turmeric, tamarind paste - are not there to add colour. 

There are, I admit, some nods to food from further afield, but the consequences are often unappetising flavour combinations. The curry sauce consists of infusing stock with desiccated coconut (so far so good), then adding apples, onions, sultanas, lemon juice and jam (less good). A pineapple and banana salad sees the fruit mixed with cream cheese, walnuts, lemon, lettuce and grated carrot, then dressed in mayonnaise. Even recipes from Europe are controversial. Italians would weep to read the instructions for ‘risotto’, in which rice is “boiled quickly”, before stirring in cheddar and tomato sauce at the last moment. 

Beyond a squeeze of lemon or a grating of nutmeg, I decide to stick to ingredients found closer to our shores. But while I never expected to find excellent recipes from other cultures, I am surprised that the best of British produce is not celebrated. So many of the Spring ingredients that I enjoy at the moment are nowhere to be found. There is no rhubarb, no chard, spring greens or broad beans. Herbs that can be grown in our gardens - thyme, dill, sorrel, mint - are not harnessed to add bright, clean notes to dishes. Just occasionally I stumble across simple, sympathetic cooking of seasonal ingredients, such as asparagus cooked in lots of butter and served on toast. Most of the time, though, it is a case of a little parsley and a lot of potato. 

Just as there is little celebration of seasonal British produce, there is also little pleasure taken in the process of cooking itself. My favourite food writers, from Rachel Roddy to Meera Sodha, have taught me that time and care coax the best out of ingredients. Yet in an era when every task took much longer, from washing clothes to the weekly shop, it seems time is a luxury. Prep time, in particular, must be minimal - ingredients are thrown in a pot, or in the oven, and left to cook. Onions are not sweated gently until they are sweet and mellow, but sliced and quickly fried or boiled vigorously with other ingredients. All vegetables are treated equally: twenty minutes for boiled potatoes, twenty minutes for (very soft) green beans and peas. Onions are not sweated gently until they are sweet and mellow, but sliced and quickly fried or boiled vigorously with other ingredients. The result is, with some exceptions, rather a mush. 

This style of cooking is about function rather than flavour; a utilitarian process of getting the basic nutrition required. I am saddened by the thought that my forebears did not experience the joy of cooking, that journey from base ingredients to delicious meal. I wonder if they found joy in eating together, either? Did they have time to chat the evening away over the debris of empty plates and wine glasses on the dining table? The baking chapter is the one place where care and time is often found, perhaps in kneading dough, resting and rolling pastry or making preserves. Steamed sponges soaked in syrup; stale bread transformed into custard-steeped puddings; intricate tarts and flans; delicate biscuits and petit fours; cakes that don’t need mountains of buttercream to taste delicious. Here, there is pleasure in the making and in the eating, too.

Below is a list of what we ate during the week. I quickly discovered that what are listed as vegetarian meals are often, in fact, side dishes and learned to scale up the portion sizes accordingly. Even so, after several dinners that were essentially just boiled vegetables, we turned to peanut butter on toast as a second course. 

  • Savoury baked fish: White fish fillets are covered in grated onion, sliced tomato, parsley and breadcrumbs, before being baked. This was quite tasty, although the cooking times left the onion a little raw and the fish slightly overdone.
  • ‘Spanish’ rice: The inverted commas are needed here, as there wasn’t much that the Spaniards would recognise in this dish. Rice is boiled with grated onion, grated carrot and diced tomato, stirred with Cheddar cheese and curry powder, then poured into a wetted moulds to set before turning out. I had learned my lesson from the still-raw onion of the previous night, so I deviated from the recipe slightly by gently frying the onion before beginning. It wasn’t a sophisticated meal, but it was soft and gooey, with a background warmth from curry powder. Comforting, nursery food.
  • Green salad (side dish): A much more classic salad than the pineapple and banana number mentioned above, this contained cucumber, tomato, radish and lettuce. The French dressing was delicious (if a little incongruous when paired with the Spanish rice) and is a recipe I'll definitely return to.
  • Vegetable hotpot: Sliced vegetables - potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, celery, turnips, onions and lentils - are layered with dabs of butter, then stock is added to the pot and it is baked for an hour and a half. The result soft and bland, though inoffensive. Proof that most things are improved by a poached egg and a good grind of pepper. 
  • Curried lentils with rice: I was relieved to find a dish where onions not boiled, but gently fried in fat - here, with curry powder added for the last minute. Lentils, desiccated coconut, sultanas and stock are then added and simmered until soft. Although it did not have the depth of flavour I have come to expect from a dal, it was sweet and warming. 
  • Spaghetti tomatoes: This was one of several recipes for stuffed tomatoes in this book. You start by halving and hollowing large tomatoes. Chopped cooked spaghetti is mixed with a white sauce and the tomato pulp, spooned into the tomatoes and covered with croutons and grated cheese. Bake in the oven or under the grill until golden brown. It was like a fresher, tastier version of tinned spaghetti hoops. 
  • Apple flan: A recipe that shows simple is best. You need nothing more than very crisp, slightly sweetened pastry crowned with a ring of sliced apples. There is no frangipane or icing, but it is spread with a mix of butter and sugar that turns the apples a golden, caramel brown upon baking.
  • Household cake: The cakes in this book aren't the decadent, multi-layered, over-iced affairs of the modern day. The idea of a cake for a special occasion is a fruit cake packed with dried cherries, currants, sultanas, raisins, peel, almonds and spices. This a more simple, everyday cake that uses less fruit, fat and eggs. I was concerned it would be dense, with only 1 egg and a method of mixing that is more similar to making a crumble than beating air into a cake. Yet, though thin, this cake is glorious and rather light. Crisp on the outside with a very soft, buttery crumb in the middle. It’s light enough to eat every day, but tasty enough to feel like a treat. It’s the type of thing my granny would have eaten with a wedge of cheese and my dad would spread liberally with butter, but I think it’s best eaten unadulterated. It works equally well in a lunchbox or with a cup of tea in the afternoon. Recipe below.
Savoury baked fish
'Spanish' rice
Apple flan
Spaghetti tomatoes

 

 

Household cake

 

Ingredients

  • 6oz flour (or 4oz flour and 2oz ground rice)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • A little grated nutmeg
  • 3oz of sugar
  • 3oz butter
  • 2oz currants
  • 2oz sultanas
  • 1oz peel
  • 1 egg
  • Milk and water

Method

  1. Grease tin and line the bottom only with greased paper.
  2. Prepare fruit (I presume this means weigh out!)
  3. Mix flour, salt and baking powder.
  4. Rub in fat until the mixture is like fine crumbs.
  5. Add beaten egg and sufficient milk to make a slack dough.
  6. Mix in fruit. 
  7. Put into tin and bake in a moderate oven (I baked at 180°C) for 45 minutes - 1 hour. Test with a hot skewer or a hat pin (I love this!). 

Recipe: sweet cardamom dukkah

The food and drink sector is a fantastically collaborative space. From no waste pop-up restaurants to independent food tours to podcasts, I see chefs, home cooks, journalists, PR companies and bloggers who are creating, eating and learning together. For me, this collaborative learning process is often as simple as a friend introducing me to a new flavour, ingredient or dish that then influences my work. Recent inspiration came at a supper club when, as we waited for dinner, social media guru and fellow food lover Charlie appeased the group's hungry stomachs by serving bread and oil with dukkah. And so began my infatuation with this Egyptian spice mix. 

Of course, I’d eaten dukkah many times before at restaurants, usually as a garnish to complete a deeply-flavoured dish. Yet when served so simply, clinging to oil-soaked bread, the ingredients were free to sing of themselves. Suddenly, the heady blend of nuts, seeds and seeds became the focus on my palate, rather than just the final flourish on a plate. Since then, I’ve used it to add character and crunch to my own cooking - scattered over salads, lentils and poached eggs, swirled on labneh or hummus, and as a crust for tofu or fish. Most often, though, I’ve eaten it just with bread and oil. 

As the consummate sweet tooth, I have also created a version to dress my desserts, breakfasts and snacks. The foundation stones remain the same: hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds. Yet, instead of cumin and coriander, the bricks and mortar are bright, citrusy notes of cardamom and warm cinnamon. A few pink peppercorns retain the subtle heat that would come from white or green pepper, but wrap it in a soft, fruity flavour. And then there is the toffee crunch of demerara sugar to bring out the sweetness of each ingredient and tie them together as a whole.

This dukkah is big and bold, so you’ll only need a little to elevate the flavour of a dish. My favourite way to eat it is, most simply, on top of yogurt, porridge and fresh fruit. It is a good match for soft, mild cheese and is particularly wonderful on toast with ricotta and honey. The layers of fragrant flavours also work well for desserts. You could crumble it on poached or baked fruit; wrap it in filo pastry and pour over syrup, before baking until golden; roll truffles in it for a crisp coat; use it as an ice-cream topping; or sprinkle on cakes and crumbles, pavlova or chocolate mousse. 

However you choose to serve it, its warm, intensely aromatic flavours seem to celebrate the recent turn towards sunny days and meals eaten alfresco in the garden. Recipe below.

Dukkah (1)

Ingredients

  • 100g hazelnuts, skin on
  • 3 tbsp sunflower seeds
  • Seeds from 20 cardamom pods
  • ½ tsp pink peppercorns 
  • 1 ½ tbsp sesame seeds 
  • 2 generous tsp cinnamon 
  • 2 tsp demerara sugar 

 

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 150°C
  2. Place the hazelnuts on a baking tray and bake in the oven for 15 minutes. After 5 minutes, add the sunflower seeds, making sure to keep them separate. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
  3. Meanwhile, place a frying pan over a medium heat.
  4. Toast the cardamom seeds for 30 seconds, until they start to smell fragrant, then transfer them to a small bowl. Repeat with the peppercorns and transfer them to a separate bowl.
  5. Turn the heat down to low and toast the sesame seeds until golden brown, before transferring to a separate bowl. Toast the cinnamon for around a minute, or until fragrant, and set aside in another bowl.
  6. Once your hazelnuts are cool, rub them between your hands to remove the skin.
  7. Roughly chop the hazelnuts in a pestle and mortar, then move them to a large bowl. Chop the sunflower seeds and add them to the hazelnuts. Don’t process them too much, as the texture should be quite course and chunky.  
  8. Finely grind the cardamom seeds and add to the nuts and seeds in the pestle and mortar; then repeat with the pepper. Add both to the nut and seed mixture. 
  9. Finally, add the sesame seeds, cinnamon and sugar directly to the mixture. Stir together well.
  10. Store in an airtight container or jar for up to a month. 
Dukkah on porridge
Dukkah (2)

Travel: A Short Guide to Granada

We visit Granada in late March, just as Spring awakens the city. Pale blue skies drift overhead and the breeze carries the scent of almond blossom, wisteria and oranges. We begin each morning eating breakfast alfresco, shuffling our chairs towards long fingers of sunlight that stretch along the narrow streets. By 11am, the sun is strong and growing warmer still; its movement across the plazas during the day, before receding, mirrors the locals’ movement from their cortados to their cervezas.

Our days are spent between Moorish palaces and Catholic cathedrals. We wander from the central Bib-Rambla area with its tall, Renaissance buildings to the winding, cobbled walkways of the ancient Albaycín, where scruffy, white-washed houses flaunt hanging plants and conceal peaceful inner courtyards. Above us, the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Alhambra - monuments to natural and manmade beauty - stand guard over the city.  

Of course, a trip to Granada must intersperse sightseeing with stops at cafés and bars, where one can slow down and absorb the Andulucían atmosphere. My short guide for a getaway to Granada aims to cover a little of each activity - it is by no means exhaustive, but will encourage your first explorations of this beguiling city.

Albaycin street (2), Granada
Albaycin street, Granada
Albaycin street (4)

 

Stay

A city break needn’t cost the earth and, in fact, I often find the more affordable accommodation has a little extra local personality. Hostal Rodri may not be the biggest, grandest hotel, nor the chicest boutique B&B, but it meets all my essentials for a solid place to stay: central location, clean room, comfortable bed and a good, hot shower. The proprietor is knowledgable about the area and is happy to provide advice. Crucially for me, who plans holidays based on the cuisine, several of his restaurant recommendations prove to be excellent - in particular, he directs us to the fantastic Taberna La Tana (but more on that below…)

 

Visit

Few people visit Granada without a trip to the Alhambra as their focus. And rightly so, for I was completely enchanted by this collection of palaces. Plan your visit around your appointed entry time to the Nasrid Palaces, each of which is a series of courtyards based on Islamic design, with every wall and corner adorned by magnificent domed roofs, intricately carved doors, painted ceramic tiles and lace-like plaster work. By contrast, the military area of the complex, known as the Alcazaba, is made up of huge towers and sturdy ramparts, whilst the manicured gardens and palace of the Generalife show that light, water and vegetation are just as important as bricks and tiles. 

View of the Alhambra
Pools, Alhambra complex
Alcazaba, Alhambra
Tiled archway, Nasrid Palaces
Generalife palaces, Granada
Generalife gardens, Alhambra

Back in the centre of Granada, it’s worth visiting the beautiful Cathedral, an attempt by the Catholic monarchs to compete with the Moorish monuments, and its adjacent Capilla Real (Royal Chapel). Other highlights of our trip include the Monasterio de San Jerónimo and Monasterio de la Cartuja. Work your way around their sun-dappled central courtyards, filled with the scent of orange trees, until you reach their spectacular chapels - the chapel of La Cartuja is particularly extravagant and considered one of the finest examples of the Spanish Baroque style. To experience curious cave-like homes, the flamenco feel and spectacular views over Granada, take the bus to Sacramonte Abbey and stroll back downhill to the city. 

Granada Cathedral
Monastry of San Jeronimo
Monastry of La Cartuja - courtyard
View of Granada from Sacramonte

Eat

Begin your day at Café 4 Gatos, where locals sip coffee at the darkened bar and tourists vie for a seat in the sunny courtyard with views up to the Alhambra. Our table wobbles between the cobblestones as staff set down freshly squeezed orange juice and tostadas as long as your arm, which are crowned with the best local produce and cost as little as 90 cents. The traditional Andalucían accompaniment is grated tomato and olive oil, but there are several other offerings such as Seranno ham, manchego or Spanish jam. At lunch time, more substantial toppings include aubergine and goats cheese, tuna with roasted pepper and caramelised onion, or smoked salmon, cream cheese and capers. Though the slices aren’t as large, it’s worth paying a little extra to try the local, organic wholemeal bread for its mellow flavour and soft crumb.

Cafe 4 Gatos, Granada
Coffee at Cafe 4 Gatos
Breakfast at Cafe 4 Gatos

In the evening, head to Taberna la Tana for superlative Spanish wines paired with great tapas. Behind the lantern-lit door, you’ll find a cosy bar dominated by floor-to-ceiling shelves of wine bottles. Its dark walls are decorated chaotically with strings of vegetables and vintage posters; its floor is crowded with locals and well-advised tourists. Arrive promptly for opening at 8:30pm if you want a seat. The sole lady behind the bar somehow manages to keep everybody satisfied and, despite our embarrassing lack of Spanish, suggests a number of wines to our taste. My favourite is the Cerrojo Criado en Barrica, a red from the Bodegas Jabalcón vineyard at the foot of the Sierra, which retains a light, elegant feel despite the depth of sweet, candied fruit and warm spices.  

Although most bars in Granada offer a free tapas with every drink, here they are particularly good - perhaps crusty bread with tomatoes or sombrasada (sausage pate) and mouth-puckeringly salty olives. Don’t miss ordering the cured manchego, warm goats' cheese with oil, homemade pepper salad or delicate artichoke hearts with dried tomatoes. A superb tortilla, leaking sunshine-yellow yolk from between layers of potato, is not on the menu, but seems to be offered to those in the know - make friends with the regulars and, if you’re lucky, they’ll let you try theirs and order another for you. 

Then, well fed, spend your night with a glass of something glinting ruby red until the blue-skied day is almost ready to begin anew. 

La Tana, Granada (2)
Artichokes at La Tana
Manchego at La Tana
La Tana, Granada

Cookbook review: Fresh India, Meera Sodha

Have you ever been so captivated by a novel that its story weaves with the fabric of daily life, until the characters seem real and you long to return to them each evening? For me, this captivation process is intensified by cookbooks, which not only introduce you to new characters (flavours, ingredients, dishes), but instruct you on how to bring them to life in your home. The best cookbooks are a unique form of storytelling that empowers the reader to recreate what is on the page.

And so it is that I have been enthralled by the writing of Meera Sodha, who many fellow Bristolians may know for her collaborations with the local Thali Cafes. Her latest cookbook, Fresh India, has become indispensable to the evenings and weekends that I spend in the kitchen. I can no longer remember a time when I wasn’t familiar with its tastes and smells, the rhythm of thrice washing rice or the sizzle of curry leaves, mustard seeds and spices jumping in hot oil.

On a recent trip to Kerala, the time that I spent cooking with our host impressed upon me how quick, fresh and vibrant Indian cuisine can be. It was rare for her to leave something for a long marinade or patiently build a rich sauce; instead, the meal’s building blocks (usually vegetables) were thrown into a wok with an instinctive mix of coconut, tamarind and ground spices. Alongside these distinctive South Indian flavours, I was surprised to encounter more familiar ingredients such as beetroot, squash and beans, with their earthy flavours enhanced by the interplay of spices. 

This light and lively style of cooking is championed by Meera Sodha in Made in India and, more recently, her vegetarian book Fresh India. The latter opens with her reflections on the ‘Gujurati way’: fresh, vegetable-first and totally at odds with the heavy, brown curries often associated with Indian takeaways. Happily, the Gujurati way also complements seasonal British produce. Indeed, Meera’s influences from Gujurat and her travels across India are merged with ingredients from her upbringing in Lincolnshire – leek, cauliflower, beets and chard. 

In this way, Fresh India not only offers a creative style that is alive with aromatic flavours, but also encourages us to cook in a way that is good for our health and the environment. 

Squash, black-eyed bean and coconut curry

Initial impressions: structure and style

It is hardly a surprise to find that Meera, who was taught to cook by her mother, writes like a mother – in equal measure practical and nostalgic. She at once provides practical advice and reminisces about the stories linked to each recipe. 

Fresh India opens with Sodha’s essential cookery tips, including sections on how to use the book, helpful weights and measures and her top ten tips for raising your game in the kitchen. Practical suggestions continue to be peppered throughout the books, from presentation skills to menu ideas to a glossary of pulses.For me, the alternative contents has been a particularly accessible method of encouraging my first forays into the book, with suggestions for midweek meals, weekend cooking, lunch boxes, batch cooking, allotment gluts and seasonal recipes. 

Her early emphasis on cooking with the seasons is carried forward into the structure, with chapters focussed on ‘hero ingredients’ such as greens, roots and squashes, or aubergines. This ingredient-led format helps us to eat both seasonally and economically – where a dish only requires half a butternut squash, for instance, there will be a recipe on the following page for using the leftovers.

Sodha’s pragmatism is rooted in a respect for ingredients and an understanding of how to bring the best out of each one. She advises us to cook onions for as long as possible so they are sweet and mellow, or to take the time to decorate dishes because we eat with our eyes. Her affection for food spills out in the preamble for each chapter and recipe, where we learn the story of the dish’s inception: who inspired it, the memories attached to it and how she has made it her own.

 From the tales of the best street food traders in India to the rhythms of rural life in a Lincolnshire farming village, her recipes and the people behind them are threaded together by shared flavours. It is these stories, told in Meera’s bright, honest writing style, that capture my imagination and make me yearn to cook her food.

Frequently found flavours: ingredients that appear often

Although Meera features dishes from across the Indian subcontinent, there are certain ingredients that she returns to again and again, with a particular focus on the vibrant, piquant flavours of Western and Southern India. Tamarind, coconut, ginger, green chilli, garam masala, cumin, coriander, tumeric, chickpea flour and lentils all abound in Fresh India. Often, there is a quick tarka of curry leaves, mustard seeds and spices sizzled in oil, then used to crown the dish.

Some of the recipes include almost all of these ingredients to create many layers of fresh, clean flavour. In the vegetable sambar, a traditional yellow lentil stew from South India, sturdy vegetables like squash and aubergine stage the sweet-sour dance of tamarind and coconut with the zing of chilli, fenugreek, cumin and coriander. And then there are surprising ingredients more typically associated with other regions, such as the presence of pomegranate and bulgar wheat showcasing the historical fusion of flavours between the Middle East and India.

Meera also champions to produce more familiar to the British cook: beans, brassicas, pumpkin, tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms and onions are all elevated by aromatic Indian flavours. For instance, there is shredded roti with red cabbage and carrot, cauliflower korma, kale subji and corn on the cob in peanut sauce. Even the humble potato is transformed, whether crushed with creamed coconut and spices to fill chickpea dosas or married with classic Gujarati spices in a rainbow chard aloo.

Butternut squash shikh kebabs, Fresh India

New favourites: recipes I now cook regularly

The diversity of recipes in Fresh India means that I can, and do, cook from it throughout the week without feeling like I am eating the same cuisine every night. 

Having so far cooked from the book during autumn and winter, I have naturally gravitated towards the recipes with seasonal squash, pumpkin and root vegetables at their heart. A favourite has been the gentle, comforting olan, in which squash is roasted until its edges caramelised, then cooked until it almost collapses into a sauce of soft, jammy tomatoes, tender black-eyed beans and coconut milk. Squash has also graced our dining table in a more vibrant guise, dressed in a tangy marinade of coriander, garlic, green chilli and spices for the Portuguese-inspired cafreal.

Quick curries that appear often in our kitchen include the bhara baingan (aubergine and pea) and the chana saag (spinach, tomato and chickpea). Many recipes also work well for packed lunches guaranteed to induce envious comments from colleagues. Sweet-smoky butternut squash shikh kebabs are perfect wrapped in parathas, with greens and a mint yogurt to sooth the gentle heat of ginger, chilli and cumin. The ‘hara bara’ kebabs, bright with greens and fresh herbs, are also easy to transport and need nothing more than the bitter-sweet burnt lime raita and a crunchy green salad alongside. 

Banana and cardamom buns, Fresh India
Sweet saffron strained yogurt, Meera Sodha

Next on the menu: dishes I’m planning to make

During a recent Cookbook Club evening inspired by Meera Sodha, it dawned on me during the dessert course that I have yet to set forth into the sweet section of Fresh India. Within the next few weeks, I promise to fill my tins with pistachio, orange and date biscuits, whilst my fridge will house a jar of gulab jamuns - little milk doughnuts fried until they turn the colour of caramel, then soaked in rose syrup. The rhubarb and ginger compote crown my daily porridge, whilst the Bengal baked curd with tamarind berries will be a weekend treat. 

I’m also longing for the imminent arrival of spring and summer vegetables, so that I can get stuck into the chapters exploring greens and aubergines. I’ll be starting with the aubergine fesenjan in its sour-sweet sauce of pomegranate and walnut, and the baby aubergines cooked in a rich, tangy gravy of peanut, coconut and coriander. Matar paneer will be sublime with the sweetest summer tomatoes to accompany its greens and I dream of warm evenings, when I can sit outside with a glass of white wine and a plate full of leek, pea and mint samosas. 

 

Sweet or savoury, Meera Sodha’s recipes have brightened my hurried al-desko lunches and warmed the coldest winter evenings; I’m equally certain they will compliment the summer season. It’s unsurprising, then, that I heartily recommend Fresh India to everyone I encounter, vegetarian or not. After all, this is not really a vegetarian cookbook, but rather a book filled with delicious recipes that happen to be vegetarian. From sturdy root vegetables to delicate dairy products, Meera’s aromatic spicing animates even the most unassuming ingredient and showcases the best seasonal produce. 

Matar Paneer, Fresh India

Restaurant review: Bristol's best (takeaway) pizza?

Pizza taste test - Bertha's & Pi Shop

Bristol is becoming a hub of independently owned pizzerias, with a focus on sourdough. Often, they are run by the chef-owner, who has perfected the science of the sourdough pizza before training their team of bakers. When you're fortunate to live almost equidistant from two of the best pizzerias in Bristol - nay, in Britain - the difficulty lies in choosing which to visit. Bertha's or Pi Shop?

Yet, we recently realised, the beauty is that we don't have to choose. When both restaurants offer takeaway, why not order a pizza from each and see which we prefer?

What began as a piece of fun on a showery Sunday afternoon, soon looked more like a military operation. Detailed discussions ensued regarding how make sure both pizzas were ready at the same time, collected as soon as possible after each another and transported home as quickly as possible. In the interest of fairness, we decided they had to have the same topping: two margheritas for two people at two o'clock. 

Just as our lunch was never intended to be an intricately planned operation, it was also never intended to become the subject of a blog post. However, there was such interest on social media, that I thought it was fitting to write a few light-hearted words on our lunch. First, I must offer a disclaimer: what follows is my personal preference, rather than any expertise on authentic pizza making. 

Dough

Both Bertha's and Pi Shop offer a Neapolitan-style pizza, with a thin base and a puffed, pillowy edge. Both are blistered from the searing heat of a wood-fired oven, with blackened bubbles that sigh hot air at each bite. Both are made from sourdough, with that characteristic tang in taste and slight elasticity in texture. 

The most noticeable difference is that there is far more dough on the Pi Shop pizza, with its huge cornicione that collapses into a soft, chewy centre. Bertha's cornicione is softer and smaller, which makes it more in proportion to the centre and means you can finish the whole pizza with room left for pudding. 

Bertha’s pizza may be softer in texture, but it is far smokier in flavour. Perhaps it is cooked more quickly or at a higher heat, because the leopard-spotted dough has a more charred, bitter flavour that - for me - is a little too assertive and can overshadow more mild toppings. Whilst Pi Shop's dough retains complexity of flavour from the sourdough starter and long prove, its more subtle taste supports, rather than competes with, the toppings. 

Verdict: Bertha's for the size and texture, Pi Shop for the flavour. 

Takeway pizza - Bertha's & Pi Shop (2)

Toppings

Enough analysis of the dough, let's move on to what happens when the blackened lip gives way to the milk white of mozzarella and the blush of tomato. 

It is immediately evident, both to myself and several other Twitter commentators, that Bertha's pizza has more mozzarella. On both pizzas, the mozzarella possesses that lovely, mild milkiness and smooth, dense texture with a slight ooze at the edges. We take many bites of one pizza, then the other, but conclude that the mozzarella on each is of the finest quality. I can't claim to possess extensive knowledge on the 'correct' cheese-to-tomato ratio, but having more mozzarella (especially when it is this good) is my preference. 

If Bertha's celebrates the cheese, then Pi Shop definitely champions the tomato sauce, which is indeed excellent - rich, a little sweet and the slight superior of the two. This focus on the sauce makes for a soggier pizza, which some friends do favour, whilst I look for a more solid base. The drizzle of olive oil on the Bertha's pizza adds the moistness and richness that comes from the Pi Shop sauce, without leaving the pizza too wet. 

Verdict: Bertha's for the mozzarella, Pi Shop for its tomato sauce. 

The result?

My renewed realisation that both pizzas are sensational, with fantastic elements that make it too close to definitively decipher a favourite. I prefer the texture of one dough and the flavour of another; the mozzarella on one pizza, but the tomato sauce on the other. For me, Bertha's just pips it because of the proportion of the crust to centre and the less soggy middle, but - that said - I could quite happily eat that springy, subtly sour Pi Shop dough by itself. Delicious. 

Ultimately, the only strong conclusion I can draw is that I am extremely fortunate to live close by to not one, but two, such pizzerias. And, just a little further away, await more superlative pizza places, from Flour & Ash to Bosco. Perhaps a pizza tour is in order? 

Takeway pizza - Bertha's & Pi Shop (3)

Restaurant review: Box-E

It’s a sign of the times that I can not only find a restaurant’s menu on social media, but also request a particular dessert via an Instagram comment. Yet, in the case of Box-E, my prior knowledge does nothing to detract from the magic of the meal. The harbourside setting alone is enchanting: perched high up in a set of shipping containers, where light pours in through floor-to-ceiling windows. It will be fabulous on a summer evening, but it is still very special on a grey, February afternoon. 

Elliot Lidstone, Box-E

This is the passion project of Tess and Elliott Lidstone, a chef with superlative credentials, who spent their life savings on a stove named Sandra and launched headfirst into their own venture. It’s difficult to convey how tiny their restaurant is, with just 14 seats squeezed around the open kitchen and 4 stools at the counter. We are practically at the stove with Elliott, mesmerised by his rhythmic movements back and forth to the pass.

Tess is away on the day of our visit, but we’re greeted very warmly by our server, who offers boundless enthusiasm about the wine list and the food. He brings us freshly baked bread - a white tin loaf, still warm, which makes a refreshing change to the now ubiquitous sourdough. Its fluffy crumb and gentle flavour works well not to fight with, but rather provide a foundation for, the salty, umami seaweed butter.

After being encouraged to take several more slices of bread, we watch Elliott plate our food. Our meal begins with purple-sprouting broccoli dusted in truffles tasting of musk and wood, then brightened by peppery radishes and the sharp, apple flavour from Japanese shungiku leaves. It reminds me that, even in the depths of winter, vegetables can be sprightly and vibrant.

Then there is pollock, whose golden skin can barely hold quivering flakes of plump, pearly fish. It rests on a cradle of celeriac puree and fat borlotti beans cooked until just collapsing, but still with substance from flecks of crunchy celery and spring onion. Parsley oil adds grassy freshness; butter-bathed chard leaves bring richness. It’s a lesson in how to elevate simple ingredients - an inexpensive fish, beans, root vegetables - into a special, unctuous dish.

For my partner, a perfect pink fillet of lamb, its fattiness foiled by the slight bitterness and bite of quinoa and the blazing heat of harissa. A dab of soothing cauliflower puree, mirrored by shavings of raw cauliflower, is all that is needed to make this a well-rounded plate of food. The flavours in this dish, and throughout the meal, are earthy and subtle, with a touch of sharpness, sweetness or spice added here and there.  

Pollock, Box-E
Lamb, Box-E

As the waiter presents the dessert menu, he offers a wise smile that suggests he already knows what we will order. Indeed, in the short time it has been open, Box-E has become synonymous with one particular pudding: its superlative pannacotta. “Even when Elliott cooks the finest cut of beef or a beautiful piece of fish, people are looking ahead to dessert,” the waiter tells us. “If we don’t have any pannacotta on that day, they ask us if we’ve got any in the back!”

And it is every bit as good as its reputation would suggest. Its smooth, untroubled surface trembles slightly as the plate is set down, the accompanying blood orange like a blush on its milk white cheek. The clean, delicate taste of dairy and real vanilla is woken up by the acidic citrus fruit and the crunch of pomegranate. I’m not sure if they’ll ever be able to take this pudding off the menu.

It’s an ambrosial end to a deftly executed meal. I challenge anybody not to be wowed by the accomplished cooking and amiable, relaxed service. Elliott and Tess claim to have thrown caution to the wind with their venture, but I have a hunch that they’re well on their way to being swept up in a tornado of nationally-acclaimed success.

Pannacotta, Box-E
Pannacotta, Box-E (2)

 

 

Cookbook review: Simple, Diana Henry

Flourless chocolate cake

Much has been said about Diana Henry as a food writer who reads, whose voracious appetite for literature (epicurean or otherwise) has influenced the development of her own evocative voice. Yet, for me, it is equally important that she is a food writer who cooks - not in a restaurant kitchen, but in a home kitchen. 

In Simple, as in her other books, Henry’s experience of cooking at home is evident in her honest way of looking at food. She acknowledges that most of us never buy the utensils listed in the ‘cooking equipment’ section; she understands that many of us require meals that are quick to prepare; she reflects the change in our eating habits, with fish, vegetables, grains and pulses receiving as much consideration as meat dishes.

Cook Simple (2004) was a guide for less confident or time-poor cooks, perhaps those balancing a baby in one hand and a baking tray in the other, who required low-effort cooking. Whilst Simple retains this practical outlook, Henry offers a wider range of techniques and flavours to transform simple ingredients into something special. From refreshing salads to hearty, comforting meals and make-aways, this is not only food that you can cook, but food that you really, really want to cook. 

Initial impressions: structure and style

The structure of Simple supports readers to build layers of flavour: each chapter is based on a key building block for a meal, which is then assembled in a variety of different ways. There are chapters on eggs, salads, pulses, pasta and grains, fish, chicken, and so on. There is even, much to my delight, a chapter dedicated to toast. 

This structure is flexible, so you can use chapters (or blocks) both independently and together. For instance, the aubergine, chickpea, walnut and date recipe from the Pulses block is a wonderful side for a dish from the Roasts chapter, but works equally well on its own as a light lunch. Henry encourages the reader not only to combine, but to adapt, recipes - perhaps adding a grain to make a dish more substantial, or substituting one green for another depending on the season.

Each chapter features Henry’s reflections on the food group at its focus, written in her evocative style. We are transported to a quiet trattoria in suburban Rome to experience the joy of pasta; we trudge to the university spud van when, as a 2am essay crisis hits, only a jacket potato will do; and we kick off our shoes and turn up the music as we tuck into a hot dog. Together, we take in the simplest of pleasures: toast with butter or making a quick meal from a can of beans, a tin of anchovies. 

Each vivid memory precedes practical advice on how to cook the ingredient in question. We are told how to prepare pasta to retain its flavour and bite, rather than overcooking or cloaking it in a sauce, and to cook eggs with care to create a luxurious, silky texture. At each turn, Henry’s eloquent descriptions persuade us, and her instructions guide us, to bring the best out of every ingredient. 

Aubergine, chickpea, walnut & date
Root, shiitake and noodle salad

Frequently found flavours: ingredients that appear often

Throughout Simple, international ingredients are used to elevate more familiar flavours. Henry’s longstanding affection for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines is especially evident. Pomegranate brings out the natural sweetness of roasted carrots and appears again later, this time with olives and chickpeas, to brighten a warm cauliflower salad.  Aubergine, preserved lemons, feta, tahini, dates, sumac and many other Middle Eastern items also appear regularly.

Other common ingredients stem from Henry’s research into colder climates for Roast Figs, Sugar Snow - spelt, caraway, blackberries. Dill is particularly prevalent. It appears often in the fish chapter, but its faintly aniseed flavour is also used elsewhere to balance creamy feta or to add clean, fresh notes to harissa roast carrots. Then there is spice and sweetness from Asia. Miso stands up to the robust, earthy flavours of root vegetables and mackerel, and a chilli, ginger and lime dressing heats up cool greens for a sprightly summer salad. 

And it’s not always international ingredients that transform suppers into something special. Crab, for instance, adds an element of luxury to more everyday ingredients, from toast to pasta to cod. Vermouth, too, is ubiquitous, lending character and complexity to roast lamb, baked tomatoes or a prawn pilaf. In these recipes, Henry shows that everything from the local catch in your fishmongers to the bottle of booze gathering dust at the back of your cupboard can be used to create variety in your cooking. 

New favourites: recipes I now cook regularly

As is the sign of any good cookbook, there are now a number of recipes from Simple that are on regular rotation in our house, as well as others that are reserved for more special occassions. 

Pappardelle with cavolo nero, chilli, garlic and hazelnuts has become a go-to speedy supper, for it is simple and frugal, yet very tasty. The root, shiitake and noodle salad is the solution when we have been craving something fresh and vibrant, yet seasonal, during the winter months. By the opposite token, the orzo with lemon and parmesan has offered rich, oozy comfort on cold nights curled up on the sofa. 

We’ve made the salmon en papillote and the prawn pilaf, both from the fish section, for several weekday dinners. For an alternative to a Sunday roast, I recommend both the parmesan roast chicken with cauliflower and the Moroccan-spiced chicken with aubergine and dates. Follow up with the bitter flourless chocolate cake, crowned by whiskey-laced coffee cream, and you’re in food heaven. 

Pappardelle with cavolo nero (2)
Pappardelle with cavil nero

Next on the menu: dishes I’m planning to make

Henry’s food inspires joy, both in the cooking and the eating, and there are many untried recipes that make me excited for the future moments I will spend in the kitchen. I am particularly looking forward to the arrival of spring produce, when the rhubarb and raspberry crumble cake is first on my list, closely followed by the asparagus with goat’s cheese and the griddled courgette with burrata and fregola.  

For a devotee of breakfast foods, I’ve surprisingly not yet made in-roads to the chapters on eggs and toast. On weekend mornings from here-on in, I hope to be found with a slice (or two) of sourdough piled high with Persian-inspired eggs, dates and chilli or with boozy mushrooms sautéed in cream and vermouth. Both dishes speak to me of something simple, yet utterly sumptuous. 

These are clever recipes. With no-fuss cooking methods, interesting flavour combinations and real respect for each ingredient, Diana Henry empowers us to create food at its finest.  

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Recipe: Carrot, tomato and butterbean salad

Carrot, tomato and butterbean salad

This salad was born with the New Year. On the 2nd of January, after many days of excess, I fancied a lunch that was fresh and vibrant, yet still warming. With little more than carrots and a few tins in the cupboard, my expectations were not high. Yet this recipe goes to show that gentle spicing and a good dressing can transform even the most humble vegetables into a satisfying meal, rather than just a side dish. 

For me, a salad must always contain more than leaves. I need beans, pulses or grains to keep me going until the next meal. Here, plump, creamy butter beans are added to the vegetables, oil and spices for the last ten minutes until they become burnished and juicy. To build the final layers of flavour, toss with peppery rocket and the sweet-sharp pomegranate dressing. 

When you're ready to plate up, tumble the vegetables and beans in a messy pile, before embellishing with sesame seeds and a touch of tahini. Slice up a loaf of sourdough to serve alongside and soak up the juices. 

Serves 3-4 people.

Ingredients

For the salad:

  • 500g Chantenay carrots
  • 500g cherry tomatoes
  • 2 tins butter beans
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds 
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 60g rocket

For the dressing:

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp pomegranate molasses
  • 1 tsp honey
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

To serve:

  • 2 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
  • Tahini

Method

  1. Preheat your oven to 200º C
  2. Begin by preparing the vegetables. Wash the carrots and cut them in half lenghtways. Half the cherry tomatoes. 
  3. Set a small pan over a low-medium heat. Once hot, toast the coriander and cumin seeds for around a minute, or until they smell aromatic. Leave to cool slightly before crushing in a pestle and mortar.
  4. Add the carrots to a large baking tray with the olive oil, the smoked paprika and the cumin and coriander mixture. Stir to combine well, then roast for 15 minutes.
  5. Give the carrots a stir, add the tomatoes and roast for a further 15 minutes
  6. Stir the carrots and tomatoes, add the butterbeans and roast for a further 10-15 minutes.
  7. While the vegetables are roasting, whisk the dressing ingredients together in a small bowl and toast the sesame seeds over a low heat until golden.
  8. Remove the tray from the oven and leave to cool for a minute, before tossing with the dressing and the rocket.
  9. Pile on your plate, before topping with the sesame seeds and a drizzle of tahini. 
  10. Serve with slices of sourdough or another bread of your choice.
Carrot, tomato & butterbean salad (3)
Carrot, tomato and butterbean salad (2)

Recipe: Cocoa, cardamom and orange porridge, with pear and hazelnuts

Cocoa, cardamom and orange porridge (1)

I love porridge. Not only on a cold winter's morning, but every day for breakfast - and possibly lunch or dinner - all year round. At university, I was known to skip a portion of chips on the way home from a night club in favour of returning home to make porridge. If we are what we eat, I am an oat.

Porridge's recent rise in popularity has often been within the context of the growing influence of Scandinavian culture, the much-cited concept of hygge and the experimentation with different grains - millet, buckwheat, rye, spelt, amaranth. But, for me, the humble oat porridge is quintessentially British. Porridge adorns our national breakfast table, whether it's served with a dash of drambuie in Scotland or a sliced half-banana, a sprinkle of sugar and a splash of milk in my family home on England's South coast.

As I've grown, my porridge has evolved with me. I'm certainly no porridge purist; on the contrary, I've found that porridge is the perfect base for an experimental cook - a litmus test of flavour combinations and textures, if you will. It is mild enough to withstand aromatic spices and sweet fruit computes, and even works well savoury flavours from miso to mushroom. Nuts, seeds and increasingly hipster toppings (bee pollen, anyone?) make the perfect foil to porridge's creaminess, yet it retains enough bite to withstand a velvety slick of yogurt or crème fraîche.

This winter, one of my favourite porridge flavourings has been just a touch of cocoa powder. Here, it's deep bitterness marries so well with the mellow sweetness of ground hazelnuts and vanilla, and with the sunshine of orange and cardamom. With its crown of honeyed pairs, the crunch of hazelnuts and a swirl of thick Greek yogurt, it makes an ideal bowlful for a slow, soulful morning.

Ingredients

For the porridge:

  • 1 large mug oats (about 100-120g depending on your appetite)
  • 1 large mug water
  • 1 large mug milk
  • 1 tsp cocoa powder
  • Zest of half an orange
  • 1/4 tsp cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste
  • 1 tbsp ground hazelnuts

For the topping:

  • 1 pear, thinly sliced or cut into chunks
  • 1 tsp honey 
  • Greek yogurt, to serve
  • Chopped toasted hazelnuts, to serve
  • Brown sugar, to serve

Method

  1. Prepare all the ingredients - zesting, chopping, toasting and grinding - before you begin
  2. Place all the porridge ingredients in a pan and cook over a low heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon, for 10 minutes or until the porridge is thick and creamy
  3. Meanwhile, place the pear in a small pan with the honey and 2 tablespoons of water. Cook over a medium-low heat for 5 minutes, or until the water has evaporated and the pear is lightly golden
  4. Divide the porridge between bowls and top with the pear, Greek yogurt and toasted hazelnuts. If you are a sweet tooth, like me, a sprinkle of soft brown sugar is also lovely.
Cocoa, cardamom and orange porridge (2)
Cocoa, cardamom & orange porridge (3)