Friday, 26 September 2008

Friday Nibbles - The Potato

Continuing my weekly look at a store cupboard essential, a true hero of the kitchen, this week we turn our eyes (pun intended) to the potato.

The potato is a relative newcomer to the everyday western diet. It arrived in Europe from the New World sometime in the 16th century (1536, to be exact), at about the same time as tobacco. I think that there is a wonderful irony that the two items that have caused the most significant amount of damage to the health of those of us in the developed world – chips (by which I mean French fries, which are, of course, Belgian) and tobacco – both arrived at the same time from the Americas.

This starchy, tuberous crop quickly became popular throughout Europe and went some way to replacing bread as the staple, especially in Ireland, a reliance they discovered to their cost in 1845 when blight wiped out the vast majority of the crop leading to huge famine and, ultimately, a mass exodus to the United States.

Although most people would struggle to name ten, there are over 5,000 varieties of potato, most of which are native to the Andean region of South America. There are probably almost as many ways to prepare and eat the vegetable as well, which is what makes them ideal for keeping in the store cupboard.

There are few foods as comforting as the potato, especially when paired with butter, cream or cheese. There is something so warming and satisfying about this particular carbohydrate that can’t quite be matched by pasta or rice.

They are also wonderfully seasonal. There are few foods as evocative of the differing seasons than the different types of potato. Waxy new potatoes, gently boiled and drizzled with olive oil, a little lemon juice and some finely chopped parsley is a great accompaniment to a barbecued or grilled food. Cool autumn nights can be warmed by fish pie or a heaving plate of mashed potato with sausages and sticky, rich onion gravy. A simple baked potato, topped with butter and melting gooey cheese is an perfect, and easy, winter meal and the first Jersey Royals are a sure sign that spring is in full bloom.

And then there is the chip. As far as simplicity goes, this is about as basic as it gets. A fried potato. But somewhere between that slightly chewy, slightly crispy exterior and the fluffy warm inside, lies a perfect food moment. A little sea salt, perhaps a splodge of ketchup or mayonnaise is all the gilding that is needed. The first chip should be a little too hot, so that it causes a rush of steam from within and has to be eaten with the lips open, pulling in a little air to cool the hot chip within. From there it is simple culinary bliss.

No, aren’t that good for you. Yes, they have little nutritional value but whether they are eaten in the heady midst of summer in the beer garden of your local pub, or shovelled in late night in a post imbibing, alcohol fuelled frenzy, the chip is always, always as close as it is possible to get to perfection.

And, for the record, for the purposes of this post I did both cook, and eat, a small portion of chips at ten thirty in the morning. The sacrifices I make in the pursuit of epicurean experimentation and culinary musings are staggering…

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Candid Food - New Blog

After flirting with photography for this site for the last few months, I’ve decided to launch my first photography project called ‘Candid Food’.

Candid Food takes a tongue in cheek look at the highly stylised world of food photography. In this alternate reality, various food items are re-imagined as scandal-icious models, actors, actresses, reality TV stars and all round celebrities. The site exposes the seedy underbelly of this apparently glamorous world by publishing all the pictures that they don’t want you to see.

No sexy lighting, no food stylists, no Adobe Photoshop. Just candid shots exposing the depravity and real side of life as a food model.

All the subjects are real. All the shots are genuine. Prepare to be shocked.

Desert Island Foods

I’ve been slightly overwhelmed, and delighted, with the response to ‘Friday Nibbles’. Thanks to everyone who has commented, emailed or responded in some way. It’s definitely a keeper.

But all this thinking of store cupboard essentials turned my mind to the absolute essentials, those items that I couldn’t possibly live without. What five items would I pack if I knew I was destined to spend an indefinite amount of time stranded on a tropical island?

Along with the ‘Last Supper Game’, this is a favourite amongst the cheffing fraternity. Why? Because it is sublime in its simplicity. It’s a game that provokes intense thought as well as healthy debate: ‘You’d waste a whole item on caviar? You’re crazy! At least Pork chops will fill me up!’

It’s a game that offers an enlightening glimpse into the soul of every foodie and one that allows each person to put forward their case and then change their mind a number of times before settling on their own definitive list. It’s a game that causes defensive muscles to flex and warm feelings to wash over you when you think of all those great ingredients that you cherish. And all those that must fall by the wayside.

So, I thought I’d kick things off. These are the rules:

You can take five items and are allowed one sentence in which to justify your decision. Please feel free to play along and link back here if you are feeling generous. If you wish to tag any fellow bloggers, then tag away with wanton abandon. The more the merrier.

You are on a desert island so assume a plentiful supply of exotic fish, coconuts and sea salt. Ignore any issues regarding storage issues. There happens to be a very large solar powered refrigerator washed up on the shore as well. But what five items would you have brought with you?

1. A large, heavily pregnant pig. Ah, the pig – true nose to tail eating and the most versatile, not to mention tasty, animal in existence.
2. Potatoes. Boiled, roasted, mashed, fried, chipped, crisped, baked, gratinated: the list of filling starchy goodness goes on, and on, and on.
3. Chickpeas. Of all the leguminous vegetable, these are the ones that I think I would pack – they are filling, completely tasty and incredibly versatile
4. Garlic. Pure and simple, as a flavouring garlic is the very best: French, Spanish, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Indian, South American, Asian – with garlic, all could be on the menu
5. As a luxury item I think I would take an enormous pot of goose fat. Hey, if I’m living alone on a desert island I want some small concession to the good life and this would be it.

Game on…

Monday, 22 September 2008

Two new residents - Chickens

Well, we did it. We were going to wait until this weekend but the sight of an empty chicken hutch was just too much to take and so on Saturday we toddled off here, to Cambridge Poultry, to pick up two brand new house mates. And I am delighted to be able to introduce you to Marx and Eggels, the most revolutionary chicks this side of North Korea.

At the moment they are about sixteen weeks old and aren’t due to start laying for another month, or so, but in the mean time they should provide much amusement as they scratch around, eat bugs, crap all over the garden and gradually become accustomed to their new surroundings. Once they start to lay, we should see about 300 eggs a year from both of them giving us a bounty of fresh eggs for breakfast as well as a plentiful supply left over for baking and giving away.

Although we were trying to remain impartial, we quickly ended up ‘adopting’ one each. My girlfriend was keen for a traditional brown hen (ours is a Blacktail), whereas I plumped for something a little more unusual (a Nera). Once we got them home and into their new run, my dark-feathered Nera soon established herself as the more confident and cocky (excuse the pun) of the two and was quickly given the moniker Marx as de facto leader of this rebellious pairing.

They are wonderful to watch. So reptilian, like miniature, feathered dinosaurs with sharp beaks, keen eyes and Triassic looking claws. They miss little and any noises will have them craning their necks, heads darting to try and find the source of the sound. They seemed intrigued by a passing plane, only to be distracted by a large caterpillar that had foolishly (with a little help from me) wandered into their run. A happy, and sunny afternoon, passed quickly as we watched them do their thing.

Once dusk sets in, they should instinctively find refuge in their hutch but this being their first night, they were not keen to venture into their Eglu. It looked as if more drastic action might be called for and so the run was opened and we waited for them to emerge, poised to grab them as soon as they came close enough.

Eggels was happy to be picked up and hoisted into her new house, via the ‘egg hatch’. It was warm and cosy with a generous covering of straw. Marx, on the other hand, was both less keen and a lot faster than her passive collaborateur and made a break as soon as she saw an opening. Between my flailing arms.

The plot next to our house is an overgrown thicket of about an acre where brambles cross the pathways like mutated barbed wire and nettles grow in frightening abundance. Don’t let her go next door, said my girlfriend. Whatever happens don’t let her go next door.

But as Tsar Nicholas II found to his cost, once the spirit of revolution has been aroused, there is little that can be done to suppress it and within a few moments, Marx had disappeared into the wilderness. Armed only with a pair of flip flops and a dying torch, I didn’t fancy my chances of finding her. Not that I said that to my increasingly panicky partner. I tried various calls: ‘Karl? Karl? Harpo? Groucho?’ hoping that she might respond to one but to no avail. She was as silent as the rapidly encroaching night.

I grew gradually more worried. There were certain to be foxes around. We’d had Marx less than six hours, surely we couldn’t lose her this quickly? Fairground goldfish survive longer than that. As I scanned the dying beam of the torch through the thick growth I thought I saw her red comb but it turned out to be no more than a cluster of unripe blackberries. A small movement close to my feet was just a small creature, most likely a mouse, running through the dead leaves. ‘Chico? Chico?’

Then my girlfriend spotted her in the field. The wily chick had cleverly made a break for freedom via the undergrowth and as soon as she was clear headed for the open expanse behind the house. After chase of comic proportions, that I would have seen had I not been trapped on a bramble, she was caught, passed over the fence and wrestled into her hutch, the door shut firmly behind her. Panic over.

‘Running off in an apparent bid for freedom? Foraging absentmindedly in the overgrown forests with no thought for those left behind? Free range in the broadest sense of the word? She is so your chicken.’ Said my girlfriend.

I smiled with pride at this assertion.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Friday nibbles - Let's call the whole thing off?

Before we get onto the important business of Friday nibbles, I couldn’t possibly go any further without talking chickens. Our brand spanking new Eglu chicken house arrived this morning and by this time next week we should have two real live egg-laying hens. Having never owned so much as a hamster, I am ball-bouncingly excited about doubling the number of residents at our little house. And even more excited about the prospect of nipping out every morning to collect a couple of fresh eggs.

Anyway, onto more pressing matters.

For this weeks nibble we are going back to basics. Cooking 101, if you will, to borrow an expression from American parlance.

The tinned tomato is a true hero of the kitchen. I believe that any self-respecting cook would be utterly stuck without a ready supply of these canned wonders. They are a truly versatile heavyweight of the store cupboard and I start to get a little antsy if our own supply dips below two tins.

Not only are they amazingly cheap but they can also form the basis of a virtually endless number of meals from stews and pasta sauces to soups and pizza toppings. Casseroles, chillies, curries, the list goes on almost ad infinitum and that’s just dishes beginning with the letter ‘C’. Move onto ‘D’ and you’ve got daubes, dal, and dumplings. ‘E’ gives us…you get the idea. I don’t think I need continue.

The history of canning and tinning as a method of preserving food goes all the way back to when the Napoleonic Wars were ravaging their way through Europe during the early 19th century. Somewhat amusingly, the can opener wasn’t invented until about fifty years later, which led to a number of hair-brained methods for accessing the goods inside the little metal boxes. The bayonet became very popular, although the prospect of eating food that has come into contact with a piece of metal that had been used to disembowel an opposing soldier just before lunch isn’t particularly appealing.

In terms of its green credentials, tinned tomatoes score fairly high too. Whilst the initial canning process releases a significant amount of carbon into the atmosphere, once inside they sit happily being very green indeed, without actually going green. They need no cold storage, can be kept indefinitely and it allows us to munch on out of season tomatoes without having to freight them over from overseas.

If you have a tin of tomatoes then you have a meal. Cooked down with a little garlic and olive oil, perhaps a splash of balsamic or wine too and a twist of salt and pepper and you have a great pasta sauce. If you are feeling really lazy, blitz it up and eat it as a soup, that way you don’t even have to cook any pasta. Spread it onto toast, top it with cheese and after a couple of minutes under the grill (broiler for my chumlets across the pond) and you have an insta-pizza.

Speed and convenience are all well and good, but tinned tomatoes really undergo an amazing transformation when they are slow cooked. Ragu sauces such as Bolognese and its various relatives, are a great example of the alchemic nature of slow-cooking when the finished product becomes so much more than the sum if its parts.

So, whether you say ‘tomarto’ or ‘tomayto’, these amazing little tins of brilliance are more than worthy of a place in the larder of even the most discerning chef.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Tea Espresso?

I know, I know, I know that I've just posted about the delights of coffee but that was before I was sent this link

Red Espresso

It is an 'espresso' style drink made entirely from Rooibos tea. It is caffiene free, packed full of anti-oxidents (and I know recent research suggests that anti-oxidents do absolutely nothing for the human body. Nada) and looks (almost) as good as the real thing.

It's not available in the UK yet but I cannot wait to get my hands on some. And as soon as I do, you'll be the first to know.

Monmouth Coffee Company

As I’ve mentioned before, I really am quite picky when it comes to coffee. A couple of years back, after undertaking truly epic amounts of research, I splashed out on a second hand La Pavoni machine, an exquisitely designed piece of kit that always garners the request ‘Ooo, please can I have a coffee’ whenever someone sees it for the first time.

Rather than the modern day fully automated machines that do everything at the touch of a button, the La Pavoni relies almost entirely on the skill of the barista and it has taken me a considerable amount of time to get used to the intricacies and foibles of my particular machine. Even now I sometimes manage to overheat the water or over-pressurize the boiler which results in sub-standard espresso.

Over the last few years I’ve tried more brands, makes, grinds and blends of coffee than I care to think about and I thought I’d found the perfect one a few months back: one that made a good, strong espresso with a dark brown crema and a satisfying caffeine hit but could also be used to make a passable Americano or cappuccino if required (but never a latte, oh no. What’s the point?)

After working my way through so many crappy coffees, I was unwilling to move away from my Lavazza Rosso, afraid that I would break the cycle or destroy the spell and I would forever be searching for that perfect coffee again, morosely drinking thin espressos with no crema and an acrid bitterness.

And then my brother, also a self-confessed coffee connoisseur bought me a bag of coffee from the Monmouth Coffee Company.

Far from sourcing from the same vast coffee plantations, Monmouth Coffee Company get their beans from single estates and cooperatives all over the world. Their blends change seasonally and they are constantly looking for the best coffees in the world, creating unique blends and flavour profiles that ebb and flow according to their estates of origin and the seasons.

An Indian bean that might be good for a French blend this spring might be better as a light roast next year. A Colombian single estate bean might blend well with a Guatemalan bean when lightly roasted, but pair better with an Ethiopian when dark roasted.

The current espresso blend consists of a Brazilian Fazenda Rodomunho combined with Grupo Asociativo Quebradon from Columbia and a Guatemalan Finca San Francisco Tecuamburro for a chocolaty finish (I have no idea what these mean either but I suppose it is like blending red wine: Cabernet Sauvignon base for fullness with a little Merlot and Mouvèdre to soften the impact and provide fruity top notes. Wow, I almost sound like I know what I’m talking about).

While I might not really understand the complexities of bean blending, the good people at Monmouth certainly do. The coffee was so much better than the espresso that I am used to. It was freshly ground and gently subtle with a delightfully soft bitterness. There were definite hints of dark chocolate as well that became even more apparent when it was lengthened into an Americano. Certainly one of the best coffees I've had the pleasure of tasting in a long time. And they even do mail order.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Self Preservation, Part Two

Having raided the hedgerows, stripped the trees, harvested the vegetable patch and bought the necessary extras from the shops, we set down to transforming the vast array of fruit and vegetables in front of us into a selection of, hopefully, delicious preserves.

There’s something homely and warming, almost antiquated, about making chutneys and jellies, jams and alcoholic drinks. Although it was warm outside and only the merest hint of autumn was present, I had images of dark afternoons and crackling fires in the grate. In my head I was already enjoying the fruits of our labour as the snow came down outside in a soft translucent sheet. Sipping on sloe vodka and munching chunks of cheddar topped with tangy pickle whilst listening to the wind race through the gaps in our ancient front door.

But those times are far off and there was work to be done to before we could realise them rather than just visualise them.

Naturally, we started with the vodka. Making sloe gin, or vodka, is a simple process that takes no more than a few minutes once you have gone to the trouble of picking the berries themselves and stabbing each one with a pin three or four times (which is a real pain in the arse). These little round fruits look similar to blueberries but have an astringency that renders them almost inedible on their own. Although they can be made into a jelly, they really come into their own when turned into a sweet alcoholic drink.

Simply add them to a spirit of your choice with a load of sugar, give it a mix and leave it for about six months, giving it an occasional shake. After the allotted time, strain off the berries and bottle the purple liquor. It should taste pretty good by this point, but will get even better if you can hold off for another half a year. This really is sloe food.

Next up were the elderberries. The white flowers of the elder, so redolent of summer, quickly disappear only to be replaced with hundreds of tiny purple berries. These can be harvested and boiled up with a little water and, again, plenty of sugar. Once strained through muslin and heated to the correct temperature (about 110 degrees), a delicious jelly is the result. Hopefully we’ve made enough to see us through to next autumn, a great accompaniment to a multitude of warming winter dinners from roasts to stews.

For the chutney we turned to the many courgettes that our plants have provided us with over the summer. After roasting them, stuffing them, frying them, braising them and turning them into soup we were a little ‘courgetted out’ so decided to preserve the remainder. Even the most diligent gardener will miss a couple of these fast-growing fruits and large marrows are the inevitable end point and we had a few of these overgrown fellas just waiting to be chopped up and gently cooked with onions, tomatoes, sugar, vinegar and plenty of spices.

Our largest pan proved to be a little too small to take the huge quantity of ingredients that we wanted to turn into jars of homemade chutney so we ended up buying a new cauldron sized pan perfect for making preserves and stocks.

Once all the fresh items had been chopped up, in they went to be cooked gently for three or four hours until the whole lot had reduced down and changed colour to a deep dark brown, a rich and sticky chutney, the smell of which warmed the soul and brought to mind those rich images of crackling log fires and cold winter evenings. I couldn’t wait to try it with a chunk of cheese, so I didn’t and spooned a little onto a slice of cheddar whilst it was still warm. Simple pleasures truly are the best.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Excuses, excuses, excuses

Excuses. Excuses. ‘Excuses’. How such a pathetic little word can conjure up a myriad of negative feelings is a mystery. Whenever I hear the term I often think of a judgemental sports teacher (not a particular sports teacher, but more of a generic sports teacher that seems to have been a miniscule but nevertheless influential character in the lives of most people) snatching a note from the hand of a notoriously un-sporty pupil:

‘Bloody hell Jenkins, what’s your excuse this time?’ the word excuse proffered in a nasal and offhand fashion suggesting that even a broken neck and debilitating bout of rickets would not be a sufficient reason to avoid cross-country.

It’s a word that teachers never utter with surprise (unless mock surprise) or sympathy (unless mock sympathy). It is invariably said with derision and followed by a scornful sigh. It was always a moment of great satisfaction when, in the occasional times when the excuse was genuine and worthy of a significant amount of pity or sympathy (car crash/illness/emergency hospital visit), the look of disdain was replaced by one of guilt. You could be sure that a whispered and reluctant apology would be forthcoming at the end of the lesson.

Anyway, what does this apparently irrelevant and potentially insightful voyage into my school days have to do with food? Well, nothing really. But I thought that rather than launch straight into my own excuses for not writing anything for the past week, I’d begin by discussing excuses themselves and putting them into a context that most of you should be familiar with, thereby getting you ‘on my side’ as it were.

So, metaphorically at least, I am now that red-faced boy at the front of the class who has arrived late wearing trainers instead of the regulation black shoes. Without his homework and no dog to blame it on. And has forgotten his sports kit, and where the sour-faced teacher may be delighting in my predicament, most of my class mates are rooting for me for they know that there must be good reasons for all of this.

And there are. There are good reasons why I’ve still not yet posted the much requested falafel recipe. There are good reasons why I’ve not been replying to your wonderful comments. There are good reasons why I’ve not yet written about the second part of our preservation adventure. There are good reasons why I’ve not relayed the story of the further foraging adventures, the wild mushroom risotto, the homemade pizzas, an apple and blackberry crumble made almost entirely with free produce, tasty cheeses from Neal’s Yard Dairy, supremely good coffee from the Monmouth Coffee Company and a trip to the market where I met a couple who raise their own Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs.

Starting with the falafel – we did make them. We made perfectly formed, well-spiced, nicely cooked little rounds of tasty chickpeas and some delicious flatbreads and a batch of hummus to serve them with. And then the camera ran out of battery which shouldn’t be a problem for someone with a girlfriend that is an editor of at least one photographic publication but we decided that instead of search for a charger, we’d rather eat our dinner while it was warm. No photo, no recipe.

For the second part, I’ll bracket all that together under the umbrella excuse of having other stuff on, namely learning to drive.

After putting it of for seven years, and spending a further twelve months learning how to control an automobile without damaging anyone or anything, last week I took my (second) driving test.

And I passed. I passed with flying colours and just four minors and can now drive a car, unaccompanied, on any British road. The downside was that a vast chunk of last week was taken up with an intensive driving course which somewhat negated my ability to write.

Oh, and we had my brother staying with us as well so I couldn’t well spend the remaining free time, the time when I wasn’t behind the wheel of a small car, tapping out a few thousand words for the blog. Don’t get me wrong – you are all very important to me but I know my priorities. And they shall be resumed forthwith.

In the mean time, feel free to head over to my other blog and read about things that aren’t food related. A lot of it is about the US Election and Sarah Palin.

Normal service shall be resumed with the utmost haste.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Self Preservation, Part One

For the rural dwelling wild food fan, early autumn is undoubtedly the pinnacle of the year. With a profoundly disappointing summer (how I despise living up to the stereotype of an Englishman talking about the weather but it is relevant, and, according to anthropologists, performs an important social function but we’ll ignore that for the moment) the leaves have turned earlier and the hedgerows are positively aching under the weight of countless blackberries, the branches of apple trees bow thanks to the sheer number of fruit and the white flowers of the elder have turned into full clusters of tiny, deep purple berries. There is a banquet just waiting to be collected.

And so that’s exactly what we did.

The countryside that surrounds our house is vast and empty with numerous pathways and hedgerows crossing the fields from which to gather this wonderful bounty free of charge. We went out a couple of weeks ago armed with no more than a couple of bags and a keen eye and came back laden with tasty goodies.

Even though it was early and many of the blackberries on the brambles were little more than tightly packed red nuggets, there were a good number that were fully ripe, deep in colour and delightfully sweet. By the time we’d half filled a bag, my fingers (and lips) were stained with a familiar purple that beautifully illustrates the season.

The fruit of the blackthorn, also known as sloes, was also ripe and ready to be picked over to make a batch of sloe vodka. The hidden thorns can be a pain and I regretted not packing any gloves but the haul was worth getting scratched for, certainly enough to make a litre, or so, of sweet and leg-wobblyingly strong vodka that should be ready by this time next year.

We also came across two walnut trees whose fruit, the same colour as the leaves, was hidden within the thick canopy above us. It was hard work and involved a great deal of jumping and grabbing of branches but we ended up with two or three kilos of unripe walnuts (that bare no resemblance to the wrinkled little brains that they become once they’ve been cracked) to pickle, providing the shells haven’t begun to form.

Finally, we couldn’t pass up the thousands of elderberries that seemed to be covering every other tree along our route. By the time we returned home we had an entire bag full of bunches of these tiny little berries.

The plan was to transform this haul of fresh, seasonal produce, along with the glut of courgettes from the garden, into a series of jams, pickles, jellies, alcoholic drinks and chutneys, so after a trip to the supermarket to buy the necessary items we set to work…

Friday, 5 September 2008

Friday Nibbles - The Stock Cube

I made it! It’s Friday and I’m posting a ‘nibble’ on time. Cause for celebration indeed. There’s plenty to come over the next few days. I’ve had a number of requests for the falafel and flatbread recipe (thanks to everyone who asked for that) so that will go up next week as soon as I make up a batch and get some good photographs because a recipe without pictures is like a birthday cake without candles – it’ll do, but you notice it for what’s missing there rather than what’s present.

But in the spirit of maintaining the momentum that I started building up two weeks ago (but stalled a little last week) I’ll put these on hold and write about another essential item for any storecupboard.

For this week’s nibble, I’m going small – a bite-size nibble, if you will, although I probably wouldn’t recommend biting into one of these.

Chicken stock cubes (other stock cubes are handy too – we tend to have fish and vegetable ones in the cupboard most of the time as well, but chicken stock is so adaptable that I thought I’d focus on this particular flavour) are such an integral part of my ingredients list that I really can’t think of a suitable replacement. Of course, actual proper homemade chicken stock is superior to these highly flavoured little cubes, but it can be hard to find room for chicken carcasses, so these are the best substitute.

Even if it seems we eat a fairly constant stream of homemade meals lovingly constructed in the kitchen of our little cottage, this is not necessarily the case. Rest assured that we too get bitten by the apathy bug or succumb to a wave of laziness. This is where we crack open the Knorr. It might sound crazy but if you have a packet of these to hand, you can be mere moments away from a warming meal.

It is at times like this that the humble stock cube comes into its own and a noodle soup is just three minutes away. I tend to sit back at this point and let my girlfriend work her culinary magic. Some spring onions, a little garlic, some chilli and maybe a few slices of chicken, if you have any, can be dropped into a pan along with a pint of boiling water and one of these little flavour powerhouses. Add a slab of noodles then when they are cooked pour the soup into deep bowls and you’ve got a dinner to warm the soul. It tastes even better if you can hear the wind and rain lashing down through the windows.

The first stock cubes were introduced exactly one hundred years ago by a company called Maggi. These bouillon cubes were then copied by the iconic Oxo brand two years later, although I prefer the squidgy varieties to the crumbly - and incredibly salty – Oxo cubes. They can be used to add flavour to stews and sauces as well as soups but they really come into their own when making risotto.

Some of the finest comfort food it is possible to consume is a simple risotto made with Arborio or Vialone Nano rice, stock and then finished off with butter and parmesan. It might not be as quick as a noodle soup but the extra effort is certainly worth it.

Bircher Muesli

Whilst I tried to be fully experimental while we were in Thailand, totally embracing the culture and venturing forth into the murky world of alien and obscure foods (most of which were delicious), there were some moments when familiarity was necessary in order to make me feel human.

Being adventurous is essential. Exploring the culinary underbelly of wherever you are makes for a far more interesting cultural experience. But when a deep-set hangover is pressing at your temples and rising up from the pits of an altogether unhappy belly, congee, century eggs, fish sauce and chilli are seriously illness-inducing.

After a night on the infamous Khao San Road, merrily powering through chilled towers full of Thai lager and smoking away at a seemingly endless shisha pipe, such a hangover presented itself with the force of a rampaging bull. This was coupled with blocked ears, a pulled muscle in my side thanks to an enthusiastic sneeze and a decidedly painful stomach. In short, I was in no condition to try anything that looked remotely unfamiliar.

I was willing to forego breakfast altogether, hoping that by midday the symptoms may have dissipated and I could have attacked a tray full of fried rice or some mysterious grilled meats on a stick but then a shining breakfast shaped beacon of deliciousness presented itself.

A bowl full of Bircher Muesli and a selection of dried fruits and nuts and seeds with which to customise it. This was exactly what was required. Cooling, easy to digest and packed full of everything necessary in order to rid my body of the self imposed illness that was crippling me at the time.

Since then I’ve been meaning to create some of this early morning ambrosia in order to indulge on a daily basis and yesterday, after cleaning out some of the kitchen cupboards, I came across some oats and finally got round to it.

It’s so easy to make and keeps almost forever in an airtight container. Just mix a few handfuls of oats with whatever dried fruit you have (I used the leftover raisins and cranberries from the breakfast muffins). Add some nuts and seeds, a little sugar and a sprinkle of cinnamon and you have your own Bircher muesli. The ratio should be about fifty per cent oats, fifty per cent tasty things. The beauty of doing it this way is that you can customise it to your exact tastes, a privilege you would pay through the nose for if you ordered it online.

If you want to enjoy it like a cold porridge, mix a couple of handfuls with milk in the evening and leave it in the fridge overnight. Come morning add a mashed banana, a grated apple and a dribble of honey and you’ve got a hearty and delicious breakfast. If you mix it up in the morning, it will be more like muesli in texture, but no less delicious.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

(Delayed) Friday Nibbles - Chickpeas

Last Friday I made the mistake of committing myself to a regular and timetabled posting about a kitchen essential. Like the Chinese Olympian, Liu Xiang, I fell at the first hurdle and utterly failed to make a posting last week. There was a reason for this, it wasn’t merely laziness or plain old forgetfulness. I can’t now remember what that reason is but anyway, here is a Friday Nibbles post on a Tuesday. As a small concession to the fact that it is not a Friday, I’ve decided to make it about a general item rather than a specific product. So, essential item two for every kitchen cupboard is…

Chickpeas were one of the first vegetables to be domesticated. Archaeological evidence has been found dating them to at least 3500BCE, but the likelihood is that they were first cultivated even earlier than that in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East (the strip of land that runs between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, now mostly in modern day Iraq – it is a painful irony that archaeologically this area is referred to as The Cradle of Civilisation).

They are extremely high in protein, which explains their use in vegetarian and vegan diets, wonderfully versatile, filling, tasty and cheap - half a kilo of these brilliant legumes will set you back no more than fifty pence.

We always have a couple of bags of dried chickpeas on the shelf, as well as an emergency tin, just in case we have a pressing desire for hummus and have forgotten to soak some overnight. Raw chickpeas can be ground down and mixed with spices, garlic and coriander to be made into delicious falafel, cooked ones make a great addition to curries of all varieties and can, of course, also be made into creamy hummus by blitzing them up with some tahnini, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, salt and a little of the cooking water to thin the paste out. You can also add a wide range of Middle Eastern or North African spices to the resultant gloop to put a little twist on it. Cumin, cinnamon, chilli and smoked paprika are all excellent.

Barely a week goes by when we don’t indulge in flatbreads stuffed with hot and crunchy fried falafel tempered with cooling hummus, minted yoghurt and salad. Topped off with spicy chilli sauce, naturally. All recipes available on request.

Recipe - Breakfast Muffins

I know that I rarely post actual recipes on here. This is not a conscious decision, rather it is indicative of the way that I approach cooking – as a freeform process as opposed to a rigid set of rules. But I do like to make the occasional exception, especially when I receive such a large number of requests.

The post I wrote last week about breakfast muffins garnered the best response I think I have ever had and it was heart warming to receive so many great messages and requests for the recipe.

These are proper muffins that should rise up out of their paper houses, light and tasty. They are also relatively healthy and a great way to start the day, especially with a mug of coffee. The whisking of the egg whites aids the rising process by incorporating a substantial amount of air into the mixture and I doubt I will ever make muffins any other way after discovering this method.

So, without further ado, here is the recipe (and the picture again, for good measure)

150g of plain flour
150g of wholemeal flour
50g of oats
50g of caster sugar
3 teaspoons of baking powder
A generous handful of seeds (poppy, sunflower and pumpkin)
One orange, zested and juiced
One carrot, finely grated
Two eggs, separated
150ml of vanilla yoghurt
100ml of sunflower oil
Two handfuls of dried fruits (dates, cranberries, raisins)
A pinch of cinnamon or mixed spice
A little vanilla extract.

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl (flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, seeds, fruit and spices). Gradually incorporate the wet ingredients (oil, yoghurt, orange zest and juice, carrot and egg yolks) until you have a batter.

Whilst the oven is heating up (200 degrees) whisk the egg whites until they have at least doubled in size and form billowing, cloud like white peaks. Mix a large spoonful of the batter into the egg whites and then gradually add this mixture to the batter. Try not to overwork the mixture as you will knock out all of the air that you worked so hard to attain.

When the oven is up to temperature, spoon enough of the mixture into waiting muffin cases so that they are almost too full. When they rise in the oven they should have no other place to go except up and over.

Bake them for about twenty minutes or until they are cooked all the way through and a gentle brown colour on the top.

The basic recipe can be personalised any way you wish: Lemon and poppy seed, banana and fudge, cranberry and orange, blueberry and vanilla. Feel free to play around with it and please do let me know how you get on. I’d love to see some pictures. Also, feel free to replace the wholemeal flour with plain white flour if you want an even lighter muffin.

Monday, 1 September 2008

A few little changes and updates

As you might have noticed, I’ve made a few minor changes to the blog. The tomatoes, such an evocative sign of summer, have been removed from the banner and replaced by something distinctly more Autumnal: mushrooms.

I’ve also tried to make it easier to subscribe to the blog by adding a couple of buttons, just to the right of this paragraph. If you’d like to be informed of a new culinary musing within seconds of it being added to the website then these marvellous, clickable little buttons will enable you to enjoy that privilege. I hope that it will bring an end to the crushing disappointment of trekking through vast swathes of the arid wasteland of the Internet to my own little corner only to find that there is nothing new to read.

Voting has now opened for the Blogger’s Choice Awards 2008 so if you feel that these lovingly crafted tales are worthy of your vote then please click here or on the delightful little button on my sidebar – the one that says ‘This site was nominated for best food blog’ – to register your opinion. It would be greatly appreciated and I am sure that some reciprocal arrangement can be organised.

I have huge amounts to write about, all of which should be up and ready for you, dear reader, to cast your critical eye over within the next three or four days but in the mean time here is a little amuse bouche, a mere snack, and a tiny taster to whet your appetite.

A postponed Friday Nibbles piece on another essential ingredient that no self-respecting gourmet can possibly survive without (it’s a pulse this time).

A much requested recipe for the breakfast muffins that I wrote about last week.

Tales of preservation including homemade chutney, sloe vodka, elderberry jelly and blackberry wine.

Finally, thank you all for you wonderful comments. It is fantastic to hear from you. According to my stats page I have regular readers from all over the world including all fifty of the United States of America, throughout the Far East, in South America, Russia, China, Australia, the Middle East and South Africa, to name just a few. All this just proves what a wonderfully global and universal language food is. Hello to each and every one of you and thanks for dropping by.