Lunch

cheeseWhat do you have for lunch? I’m eternally at a loss. Though I work mostly from home, I can never be bothered cooking anything in the middle of the day, getting the kitchen hot and steamy. I can just about bear to heat up half a carton of soup.

Lunch is a constant source of “Oh good grief, what NOW?” to me. But you know if you don’t bother with it, and eat nothing, you will find yourself trudging out to Tesco in a mid-afternoon daze, buying a whole pack of fun size Milky Ways and then inhaling them from the bag on the way home, wandering what the hell happened to your life.

And that gets boring. But so do sandwiches. Some days, it is all about cheese, crackers and grapes. A salty blue Stilton that smells seriously of slept-in beds, and the waxier, paler tang of a cloudy Manchego. I think S/S 13 is going to be the season of the picnic lunch in my house.

Bread

bread (1)I’ve been baking bread. This is mostly because of my Auntie Susan. She very generously gave me some Amazon vouchers for Christmas, and I went for books by the two great and terrible leaders of the baking world: Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. With the GBBO overlords at my side, I figured, I’d be unstoppable.

Paul Hollywood’s book, How to Bake, is quite brisk. His attitude is this: you can bake great bread, and it’s not too hard, but you have to do exactly as he says. And also all of your initial attempts will suck. But you’ll get there in the end.

I like his honesty. In its spirit, I tackled his white cob loaf, for starters. And it was perfect, except for the tiny fact that we couldn’t wait long enough for it to cool down so we ended up eating it when it was still basically a hot doughy mess.

But the half of the loaf that we managed not to wolf down as soon as it was out of the oven was perfect. The crust was infinitely softer, saltier, rougher than any breads I’ve made before. So, OK, Paul. You’re pretty good. I’m going to have a crack at your sourdough next.

bread

 

Blondies

lemon-brownies

I originally saw this recipe, which is from Rita’s Recipes, via Pinterest. This crazy little lemony version of brownies is dense, sticky, and with a tiny bit of zing. But the original recipe is all in American measurements, so I hope Rita won’t mind me posting my conversions here for Brit bakers.

They’re a refreshing alternative to chocolate if you feel as if you have too much chocolate in your life (NB I’m not sure I ever feel like that), though I reckon you could also put white chocolate chips into the mixture for some extra sweetness. Quite a chic cakey companion to a cup of tea, no?

for the brownies

100g plain flour
100g caster sugar
pinch of salt
115g butter
2 eggs
juice of 1/2 lemon
zest of 1/2 lemon

for the glaze

about 65g icing sugar
juice of 1/4 lemon
water as needed

1. Combine the flour, caster sugar and salt into a big bowl. Blend in the butter.

2. In another bowl, beat the eggs with the lemon juice and zest. Add all this to your other mixture. Add in a glug of milk or two if it’s a bit dry.

3. Pour into a greased baking dish – I used those large disposable foil roasting tins you can get in Tesco. They’re good for brownies and anything else that can be tricky to turn out, but the large surface area did make the blondies quite thin and reduced the cooking time a little.

4. Bake for 25 minutes or just until pale golden and springy to the touch. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in its dish.

5. Now glaze. Stir all of your glaze ingredients together – adding more water if it’s too sticky, and more icing sugar if it’s too runny – and pour over your baked mass of uncut brownies. Spread into all the corners with a spatula and leave to set. You might want to put the kettle on for some tea around now. When it’s set, cut it into slices and eat, licking your fingers after each bite.

kitchenaid

Incidentally, I’m seriously considering somehow procuring a Kitchenaid Artisan mixer, a la the one above. But it costs more than my rent. Is it worth it? I’m pretty lazy, and I get the feeling it would make quick work of bread doughs and lighter sponges, so I am sorely sorely tempted.

Millionaires’ Shortbread

shortbread (1)

I am sick of TV reviewers being mean about Mary Berry. When the first half of The Mary Berry Story aired last week, it got mean-spirited reviews in the Guardian and the Telegraph, all because the journalists had decided Mary Berry hadn’t had a sufficiently interesting life to be worth their attention.

I keep finding this problem with reviews of foodie TV shows. Apparently, food TV is boring and samey. But for people like you and me, who love food and taste and baking and being creative with it, it’s anything but. The Mary Berry Story was not just an insight into the life of a much-loved personality, it was a ride through British food TV and journalism history, from the kitsch 1970s to the twee Great British Bake-Off present day.

People who love baking but are unmoved by, say, trains, or property development, are not about to find programmes like this boring. So maybe TV reviewers should bear us in mind.

I made Mary Berry’s own millionaires’ shortbread last week, from my copy of Mary Berry’s Baking Bible, which is rapidly becoming my favourite book ever. It went down a storm with the family (and with me – I took it down to London in a tin and ended up eating a shocking amount of it on the train).

Anyway it’s a success, and pretty foolproof if you do as Mary says, which you always should. Next time I make it though, I might try to make the base a bit crumblier – maybe cooking it for less time, or using darker sugar? I’ll report back.

for the shortbread
250g plain flour
75g caster sugar
175g softened butter

for the caramel
100g butter
100g light muscovado sugar
two 397g cans condensed milk

for the topping
400g chocolate (NB this is double Mary’s quantity, because you’re already doing yourself a serious dietary mischief with this bake, so why not go the whole way?)

caramel 5

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees. Grease a biggish swiss roll tin (Mary suggests 33 x 23 cm), or use baking parchment tucked into one of those disposable foil roasting tins like I did.

To make the shortbread, rub in the butter with your fingertips, into the flour and caster sugar. When it looks like fine breadcrumbs and all the butter has disappeared, smoosh it all together so it forms a roughly doughy ball. Don’t panic if it seems a bit too crumbly to smoosh together. This just means your shortbread will be extra short (a good thing).

Press it into your tin so it fills all the corners. Prick it all over with a fork and then bake for about 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Let it cool in the tin.

Caramel time. Put the butter, sugar and condensed milk into a saucepan and heat gently until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring it CONSTANTLY, and then reduce the heat and keep stirring for about five minutes until the mixture has thickened and looks, well, like caramel. I set a timer. Mary warns (and I underline her warning) that you must stir the mixture continuously, because if you stop for even a second it will catch on the bottom of the pan and burn.

Pour it over the shortbread base, spreading it into all the corners. Leave to cool.

Break your chocolate into pieces and melt it slowly in a bowl over a pan of simmering water, stirring every now and then. Pour over the caramel and leave to set.

When I first started cutting my nicely set millionaires’ shortbread, I cut it into big doorstop chunks. This was an error. It wants to be cut into little bitesize squares, a couple of inches across (see top pic), so people can absent-mindedly pop ten of them with a cup of tea while reading a book, which is exactly how treats are meant to be enjoyed.

caramel 3

Spring!

 

Smoked Haddock Pilaf

haddock 1So there we all were, merrily eating mackerel, feeling smug about our super-eco-sustainable-fishing credentials, and then the Marine Conservation Society decided that enough was enough. Mackerel’s been downgraded to ‘eat with caution’. It’s not endangered, but it’s not exactly jumping into boats with plentiful abandon, either. We ate it too much! Slapped wrists all round.

But with haddock, I think we are still OK. For now. Sean made this last night, riffing on a Simon Hopkinson recipe (and by ‘riffing on’ I mean ‘wilfully leaving out some of the ingredients for’). It’s a woodsy, wintry way of having fish – a lot like kedgeree, but less breakfast-like.

serves four, in theory
40g butter
2 tsp garam masala
250g basmati rice
1 bay leaf
1 lemon
375ml chicken stock
400g un-dyed smoked haddock fillet, boned, skin on, cut into 4 equal portions
2 eggs, hard-boiled
2 spring onions, trimmed and sliced
handful chopped fresh coriander
seasoning
haddock 2

As I say, Sean made this, so I’m no expert in walking you through, but this is what he said:

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Hard boil your two eggs, peel, chop and set to one side. Melt some butter in a heavy ovenproof pot on the hob and mix a couple of tablespoons of garam masala into it, then stir in 250g basmati rice and get it nice and coated in the spicy butter. Then add the lemon zest and bay leaf and pour 375ml chicken stock over the top.

Put the fish into the pot face down, resting gently on top of the rice with the skin facing up (so you can take it off later when it’s finished cooking). Put your pot in the preheated oven for 15-20 minutes. Take it out but make sure you don’t take the lid off (this is v important – don’t even peek), so you let the rice finish cooking for about 7 minutes.

Remove the lid and gently peel the skin off the haddock with a fork, then add in the spring onions, egg, seasoning and a handful of chopped coriander. Wrap the pot in a tea towel (make sure the towel isn’t resting on the mixture) and leave for 5 minutes so the food can soak up the excess steam, and then serve with a squeeze of lemon juice.

We also had G&Ts.

scot 2

Poignantly Scottish man at bus stop, marking a disastrous weekend of rugby

Lemon, Pea and Mint Risotto

lemon

Pablo Neruda wrote a poem about lemons, where he says they have ‘the diminutive fire of a planet’. They freshen up a risotto, at any rate. Risottos are good for late winter, when you still want something hearty but you also need the suggestion of warmer weather.

This is a version of a Jamie Oliver recipe. Heat a tablespoon of butter and another of oil in a pot, then soften a chopped onion in it, slowly, for about 10 minutes. Pour in your risotto rice (allow 100g per person for maximum comfort), turn up the heat and toast the rice grains for just a minute or two. Tip in a large glass of white wine and let the alcohol cook off.

(Top tip: don’t lean over the pot while this is happening, because you may get a little lightheaded. I speak from direct experience in the field.)

risotto-spoon

Once you’re starting to get a slightly floral scent off your risotto mixture rather than an alcoholic one, turn the heat right down and ease in a ladleful of warm veg stock. Keep the risotto moving until it soaks up the liquid and the texture loosens up and turns slightly creamy. Keep adding stock until the rice is soft and swollen, tasting to make sure it’s not still nutty.

Five minutes before the end, when the texture of the risotto is just a bit gloopier than you think you want it, pour in a load of frozen peas, enough to stud the mixture liberally but not to overpower it. Let the peas cook through, and then stir in half a handful of chopped fresh mint, the juice of a lemon, an extra knob of butter and some parmesan if you like. Several generous twists of salt and pepper, and spoon it into a large bowl. Sprig of mint recommended for decor.

risotto-plate

Brixton Village and Ridley Road, Dalston

brixton 5

What’s the trendiest food you’ve ever eaten? I’m in London at the moment. I’m not a natural Londoner: I get antsy in crowds, and am fond of long naps.

Coming down from Edinburgh (where the last word in fashionable food atm is a lemon drizzle from Lovecrumbs), London eating is pretty alien. Yesterday I went with Rob and George to Honest Burgers in Brixton for one of the coolest meals of my life.

George and I plumped for the Honest Burger itself, with beef (no hint of neigh), cheddar, bacon, onion relish, pickled cucumber and lettuce in a waxy little bun. The very British salt-and-rosemary chips were what made it all feel quite London (which, say, crispy shoestring American diner fries wouldn’t).

brixton 3

The menu is in mid-noughties teen magazine-esque flowchart form, which makes you worry you might accidentally avoid ordering food and instead find out that you are an independent woman who loves to party. You will note, also, that the menu has a grand total of five meal options.

The homemade lemonade comes in faux Mason jars (you can tell that they are faux because they have handles); the burgers served on chipped enamel dishes on reclaimed wooden tables. We are each given a bone-handled knife: no forks.

I mean, I totally loved it, the parade of it. But London restaurants are starting to feel like movie sets to me, everything unusual and affected and attractive in a fake ‘oh I just threw this on at the last minute’ sort of way. Do people eat like this all the time? Am I doing it wrong?

brixton 2

The rest of Brixton Village is a riot of market stalls, vintage shops full of questionable shoes, very weird spiritual outlets (there’s a place selling candles that apparently ward off court cases and bring back your ex-husband) and tiny cafes. The food stalls sell strange cuts of meat and rare veg.

I’d never seen a parrot fish before, but here I see about twenty, glaring out between crates of tripe and neat rows of pigs’ trotters.

In the evening I get the Overground north to deepest Dalston to meet Nancy, and have pizza and ginger mojitos in a tiny bar on Ridley Road which out-cools even Honest Burger. Wood-fired pizzas for £5 from the ‘Slice Girls’, and mojitos the same price, served in enormous plastic glasses while the DJ plays indie/samba to a dancefloor that’s too crowded for dancing. The rest of the street is deserted, but there’s a queue for this place.

I need to go and eat something really unfashionable now, for balance. Salmon mousse and pineapple fritters?

brixton 4

The Nancinator and me. I’m pulling a pouty face to celebrate the fact that we are in Dalston.