Category Archives: home cooking

White onion soup with cider and thyme, seared scallops and parsley-garlic puree

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So far this year has proved itself to be tediously wet, scarily windy and showing little respite as we head towards March. The week leading up to my first supper club since spring last year, saw gale force winds, power cuts (Aidan and I played the yes-no game by candle light until my eye sight failed and we gave up and went to bed) and roads looking more like rivers.
Much as I wanted to bring a little light romance to my guests for Valentines day, I also wanted to comfort and soothe with a warm decadent meal. Leaving it til the very last minute (as in the day before!) I settled on a sort of ‘warm and fluffy’ menu, the tropical romance came with dessert, a mango and passion fruit ‘mess’, but this thick, creamy soup (adapted from a Tom Aikens recipe) with its intense flavours, tender scallops and the hit of garlic in the puree got the evening going a treat.

Recipe: White Onion Soup with cider, thyme, seared scallops and parsley-garlic puree

Serves 6 to 8

50g unsalted butter
300g onions, thinly sliced
1tbsp fresh thyme leaves
½ tsp flaked salt
1tsp sugar
300ml vegetable stock
One bottle of organic medium or dry cider
150g floury potato, thinly sliced
75ml double cream
Sea salt and ground black pepper

To finish:
Two scallops per person (so 12 to 16) corals removed and trimmed to remove any dark coloured membrane
half a bunch of parsley
couple of cloves of garlic
sea salt flakes
good olive oil

Add butter to a large saucepan and when its melted add the onions, thyme, sugar and salt. Cook gently until softened and beginning to turn a light golden colour…caramelised but not browned.

Add the stock, cider and potato and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the potato is tender. Blend until smooth adding the cream at the end. Check the seasoning.

For the scallops: heat a little butter in a small non-stick pan until piping hot and almost smoking. Add scallops and sear on one side waiting until they turn nice and brown. Turn and cook briefly on the other side, but don’t over cook otherwise they will turn a bit rubbery.

For the puree: add parsley, garlic cloves some olive oil and salt to a food processor and blitz thoroughly until you get a fairly loose puree. You should be able to drizzle it over the scallops rather than it being thick blobs!

Pour the soup into shallowish bowls, top with two scallops and puree, serve and enjoy!

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Filed under British food, home cooking, Recipes, seasonal food, secret supper, vegetarian dishes, Welsh produce

Branding, Guardian review’s and new supper club dates

January is supposed to be a slow quiet month. It arrives with false promise, new years resolutions swiftly broken as the month creeps through endless dark nights, rain and gloom. Like many I often feel lethargic and slightly despondent, lacking in vitamin D gained from a bit of natural sunshine. This year its different. The new year arrived with more of an explosion than I expected. Instead of drooping about the house I felt renewed, invigorated and ready for action. New year, new me. I had a feeling life was going to be different from now on, and I soon discovered I wasn’t wrong.

Moel Faban

Bursting with excitement I launched my ‘new look’. A fresh logo, new pictures and design graced my blog and Facebook page and received an enthusiastic response from readers. I’d procrastinated over branding and identity for a long time. Being a picky perfectionist i’m hard to please but wonderful artist and designer Nina Farrell at &Agency (who was also Felicity Cloakes art director at Penguin books) took up the gauntlet. She did so admirably really capturing the essence of ME! She merged colours that reflected my Welsh rural life, images that showed my love of local produce and foraged food, with a thoroughly modern, yet also kind of vintage logo.

A warm feeling of contentment crept through me with wedding and private dinner bookings rolling in, interesting discussions and plans for future supper clubs and just when I thought it couldn’t get any better I received a text from my neighbour saying

“Den, CONGRATS on being in the Guardian mag under 5 of best supper clubs Xx”

I read the text wondering what the hell she was on about. I called her back. Are you serious? I asked. I searched on-line and there it was…how about that to start the year?!!!!

Guardian article on starting a supper club and top 5 supper clubs in the UK

Guardian article on starting a supper club and top 5 supper clubs in the UK

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As January rolled into February life increased its pace. As I mentioned January and February are traditionally lean months in the catering world, no festivals, no weddings and very few parties, but this article kickstarted something. I suddenly found myself inundated with bookings for supper clubs I didn’t yet know I was going to hold, people wishing to collaborate, offering venues and wanting to help. It was overwhelming. My landlord gave me permission to run little suppers in my new house.

The article was a metaphorical kick up the jacksy. I knew I wanted to work with more people, engage more with the local community, use more interesting spaces. Last year I wanted to branch out but plans had to be put on the back burner…now i’m off into the unknown…time to be brave!

And so to dates….there is plenty going on this year and on Friday the first of those events came to life.  A mini supper for six VERY different people in my new house.  I was nervous as hell. I felt like a new supper club host doing it all for the first time. All those old fears of will it work? Will people like my house, feel comfortable, get on with each other!

I don’t know why I worried so much, everyone got on well, conversation flowed as did the wine and cocktails. What better way to christen the new house and enjoy Valentines evening than to have four supper club regulars and two ‘virgins’ (one of whom I have known for over 20 years…ever since I made Wales my home).

The evening finished relatively early (about 10pm which is a first) as people went off to other events or battled their way home through the foul weather, but that didn’t matter…it was lovely. Rosanna had no idea where her boyfriend was taking her for Valentines night, she looked terrified when she arrived  (she’s quite a shy person)….I looked at her and said “he didn’t tell you did he?”

“No” she replied “and if it was anyone other than you i’d have run away”

At the end I suggested it was  a romantic thing to do to. She agreed claiming it was probably was the most romantic thing he had ever done! Aahhh, how sweet!…just because I have no romance in my life right now, doesn’t mean I can’t bring it to others 🙂

Supper club table all ready to go

Supper club table all ready to go…sorry about the poor quality, I only managed to get a few quick pics on my phone!

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The table decorated with rose petals, hearts and a menu with cupid wings

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White onion soup with cider and thyme, seared scallops and parsley-garlic puree

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A full table of happy guests

AND SO ON TO THE NEXT EVENTS:…

8TH MARCH……pop-up supper club at Cafe Seren, Bethesda. The aim is to use local spaces when they are generally not in use. Cafe Seren is open during the day and hopefully this will be the beginning of a regular collaboration.

The evening features live acoustic music from John Lawrence and Jaci Williams…check out John and Jaci’s collaborations here. The menu will have a wild woodland theme…I saw John and Jaci play recently and they were fantastic!! ..(limited spaces so get in quick!! We have room for 24 and we are HALF FULL ALREADY)

21ST MARCH……Equinox Bal and French Feast (pop-up cafe). Another live music and food event this time at Mynydd Llandegai Community Hall and with folk band Mouton  …this is a ticketed event and prices are £11 in advance with food (purchased from Wegottickets here) or £5 on the door without food.

Feast menu: Two courses to include either…

Boeuf bourguinon or beetroot bourguignon with roast new potatoes and a mixed leaf salad with roasted nuts and seeds (meat or vegetarian/vegan)

Traditional French crepes with orange and lemon syrup and cream

29TH MARCH…..Celebrate Earth Hour with a candlelit supper at Ty Bryn Adda; the old laundry and drying house on The Vaynol Estate, Bangor.  This is a collaboration with the owners Kim and Martin who run personal coaching workshops, but would like to see the space used for some different events. She is also a supper club fan!…. To get an idea of what the venue is like watch this video on Youtube or check out their website

This is a rare opportunity to spend time in a very unique space. There are also three rooms available in the house and bed and breakfast can be booked by those wishing to make a weekend of it (this can be discussed directly with Kim). More details regarding the menu will follow shortly.

5TH APRIL….pop-up event (details will be confirmed shortly)

26TH APRIL……mini supper club (spaces for 6 to 8 people)

18TH MAY…..mini Sunday lunch (spaces for 6 to 8 people)

To find out more about any of these events please email me on moelfabansuppers@gmail.com, send me a message on Facebook, Twitter or give me a call on 07775828769

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Filed under home cooking, in the press, North Wales restaurants, reviews, secret supper, underground restaurant, Welsh food

Leek and wild mushroom risotto…a quick midweek, singleton’s supper

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There are definitely some positives to being single and one of them is being able to cook exactly what I want when the kids are with their Dad. Mushrooms were always a no-no in our house, especially anything that resembled a wild mushroom, so I sadly forsook my beloved fungi to cook family friendly dinners.

One of my favourite dishes is mushroom risotto ( well, I love all risotto really…its one of my top ten comfort foods). Imagine, lovely oozy, buttery rice with the deep earthiness of wild mushrooms. I also love leeks, another pet hate of the children, especially the teen..although the littler kid will tolerate them blitzed to a pulp in soup, if he has to.

So now when I’m on my own I revel in the opportunity to savour my new favourite mid-week supper which combines leek, thyme and mushroom (dried wild and organic chestnut).

A lot of people seem afraid of making risotto. Its one of those dishes, like panacotta or meringue, that seem far more complicated than they actually are. It only requires one pot (so minimal washing up) and if you stick a couple of simple principles you can’t go far wrong.

1/ Don’t over cook the rice (it should be al dente)

2/ Let it rest for 5 minutes before you serve it. The residual heat of the pan will keep the rice cooking, so even if you think the rice is a little underdone, it will be utter perfection by the time you serve it.

3/ A good risotto is nice and wet. Theres nothing worse than hard, dry rice or rice that isn’t thickly coated in a rich, buttery, deeply savoury sauce. Having said this you don’t want it to resemble rice pudding. The trick is to keep adding hot stock, stirring almost continually until its absorbed by the rice, then add a little bit more. I find that recipes are often wrong and inevitably you need more than stated.  Even if you think you’ve added too much it will mostly absorb as you leave it to rest.

Another trick with this risotto, and any dish that includes mushrooms, is to slice and dry fry them before adding. I learnt this recently from friend, colleague and former Jamie Oliver Fifteen cadet, Tom. He cooked me an amazing risotto explaining that dry frying the mushrooms helps seal in the flavour, and by only adding them to the risotto when cooked it also prevents them turning mushy and formless. He’s right of course, he knows his stuff and this is a tip I have followed ever since.

Leek and wild mushroom risotto: recipe to feed one person

A small knob of butter (plus another 25g)

a dessertspoonful of olive oil

One small leek finely chopped

a sprig of thyme, leaves removed from the stem

half a dozen wild mushrooms, fresh or dried. I used dried shiitake, rehydrated for 20 mins in hot water them roughly chopped. If you are using fresh mushrooms slice and cook them in the same way as the chestnut mushrooms below.

100 g or so of chestnut mushrooms, wiped and sliced

2 – 3 handfuls of arborio rice (I used around 75 g because I have little hands)

a good glug of vermouth

500 ml vegetable stock

salt and pepper

parmesan to serve (if required)

a handful of wild rocket

Method:

Heat the knob of butter and olive oil in a saucepan. Add leek and cook gently until it begins to soften but not brown. Add the fresh thyme and rice and stir for a couple of minutes until the rice begins to turn translucent (i.e. it no longer looks so chalky white). Turn the heat up a fraction and add a glug of vermouth. Within a minute it the rice will absorb it and there will be little alcohol left. Begin to add the hot stock stirring frequently until the rice has absorbed most of it, then add more. Keep doing this until the rice has absorbed most of the stock (you may not need it all, or you may need a little more depending on how much rice you have used) and has reached the desired al dente point.

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While the rice is cooking heat a non-stick frying pan and when hot add the sliced mushrooms in one layer. Cook until beginning to brown then flip over. Remove from the heat and keep to one side.

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To serve:

Once the rice has reached the al dente point add the dried and rehydrated wild mushrooms, the remaining 25 g butter, the mushrooms and check seasoning adding plenty of black pepper. Remove from the heat and allow to rest. If you wish to top with a few slivers of parmesan that’s ok, but it doesn’t need it. Finish with a handful of fresh peppery rocket; it will help make you feel virtuous that you are at least attempting some greenery with your bowl of rich buttery comfort food.

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Filed under home cooking, Italian food, local produce, photography, Recipes, vegetarian dishes

Adore Naturals Christmas ebook and other stories

Hello hello!! Yes I’m still here despite going AWOL for a while. Looking at the blog the other day I realised I hadn’t written or posted for a whole month! That’s a long time without writing for me.

There are significant reasons for my sluggishness. Writers block is not something to be forced away, or overcome easily especially when life is already full to the point of bursting.  I guess that’s the point; life has been at the point of bursting and so many other things have taken precedence over the writing (which I love, but it doesn’t pay the bills!!).

So, its cooking, eating, attending food events and training that have kept me busy, while the stormy seas of life raged around me. I know I don’t do things by halves, but this month I’ve experienced more than my fair share of major life changing events. These are the things that have taken over my thoughts and time. Separation from my partner after twenty years has been a traumatic wrench along with, a house move and a new chapter in my life as a chef.

Although for now supper club is on hold, I’ve suddenly found myself back in a restaurant after more than twenty years this time as pastry chef at The Oyster Catcher training academy, a role that also involves cooking for the restaurant,  training and mentoring the cadets.  I’ve also been all over the place with cookery demo’s…Conwy, Portmeirion, Abergavenny which also meant little time spent in my new house.

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One piece of writing I did manage to concentrate on was a commission by Adore Naturals. Their festive guide to a natural, stress free Christmas includes ideas for making home-made gifts, family craft projects, health tips, perfect presents and my vegetarian Christmas dinner menu. The book went ‘live’ a while ago and you can access it here if you are looking for last minute inspiration

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The dessert recipe was recently trialled on the specials menu at The Oyster Catcher and was a bit of a hit!

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Beetroot tatin with goats cheese and balsamic glaze from the Adore Christmas ebook and it can be found here

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A rather melted mincemeat and marzipan parfait…studio lights and all that with orange and cinnamon syrup

For now I’m sad to say that supper club is having a break, although I am still cooking private dinners at different locations and am available for private bookings. Don’t worry though, it’s not a permanent break…just to give me enough time to take a breather while I regroup, review where I’m going with business and work out our next move for 2014. Exciting ideas are flying about…collaborations, new venues and opportunities….all I can say is have a great Christmas and watch this space closely!

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Filed under British food, Christmas, Christmas menu's, Food festival, home cooking, in the press, local produce, recipe books, Recipes

Burmese spiced fish, Conwy Feast and writers block

Writers block is a terrible thing. I want to write. I have lots to say and many stories to write-up of events I’ve attended and people I’ve spoken to in recent weeks. But as soon as it comes to sitting down and transferring my thoughts to paper its like the shutters come down in my head and the words wont flow. This is the reason for my recent silence. Writing, even food writing, needs a bit of mental space and freedom so my thoughts can roam and explore ideas. If I feel stressed, upset, preoccupied with problems or constrained my thoughts are otherwise engaged….no mental space, no writing. Its frustrating. So rather than spend weeks on a full essay, here are some pictures from my Conwy Feast demo and the recipe for the Burmese inspired spiced fish I cooked at the Feast.

Bear with me…I will be back with a vengeance soon….once some of the chaos going on in my life has subsided.

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Burmese spiced fish with coconut milk (to serve 2 people): Takes 20 mins to cook

The prominent flavours that you find in Burmese dishes are heavily influenced by the countries that border it. With Thailand on one side and Bangladesh on the other, both Asian and Indian flavours fuse to create a distinctive and colourful cuisine. This is a favourite dish that I’ve cooked for years and although of course I’ve added to or tinkered with the original ingredients it remains true to the original recipe I found in an old cookbook. These days I often use Thai / sweet basil to enhance the Asian flavours, while of course the vivid yellow colouring created by the turmeric is specifically Indian in origin.

2 thick white fish fillets (monkfish, cod or haddock)

Sunflower oil

1 small onion

1 clove of garlic

Half a thumb sized piece of ginger

Teaspoon turmeric

A small red chilli (home-grown)

Salt to taste

Half a can coconut milk

A small handful of Thai sweet basil (home-grown)

1 juicy lime

Finely chop the onion. Mince garlic, ginger and chilli (seeds removed).

Heat 2 tablespoons sunflower oil in a pan until hot. Add onions and fry quickly over the heat moving continuously for about 5 to 10 minutes, it doesn’t matter if they brown a little. Add garlic, ginger, chilli and turmeric and stir for one minute. Move the onion and garlic mixture to the side of the pan and add the fish fillets skin side down. Fry for 5 minutes or so until the skin starts to turn a golden crispy brown. While its cooking coat the top of the fish with the onion and garlic mixture.  Turn the fish briefly and add the coconut milk and salt to taste. Allow to bubble for about 10 to 15 minutes without covering. Check seasoning and then finish with the juice of a lime and a sprinkling of Thai basi. Serve with plain white rice and perhaps a minty cucumber and tomato salad.

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This fragrant plateful was divided up and between all the avid tasters at the demo!

Photographs courtesy of Kate Withstandley …photographer and art blogger at Exploring Art in the City

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Filed under Asian cookery, Food festival, home cooking, in the press, Indian cooking, local produce, Recipes, Seafood recipes, sustainable fish

Post festival recovery risotto with Trealy farm chorizo and artichokes

Travelling here, there and everywhere is unsettling at times. It always takes me a while to  get acclimatised once back at home and despite finding cooking remarkably relaxing and therapeutic, I often struggle to get back in to the familiar groove of  daily routine, family meals and planning shopping. Instead I crave quick, easy suppers with limited washing up and preparation time, often using whatever I have in the store cupboard and not go charging about to the supermarket.

Add to my current state of de-stabilisation a large dose of stress, a sudden influx of work and if I’m  honest I just want to hide away. I am juggling the desire to eat well with a severe lack of creative energy. I want to be cooked for, or at least if I have to cook I want to be able to rustle up something that’s quick but also delicious, comforting and soothing. A recovery dish.

If I’m looking for comfort food then risotto is one of my favourites. Deep, intense, savoury flavours, but also rich and satiating. Laden with cheese and butter, with a hint of wine or vermouth. I love all risotto, whether it be full of parmesan, seafood, a gorgeous mushroom one cooked for me by a lovely friend, or a kid friendly one that my daughter loves with chicken, fresh herbs and a dollop of mascarpone.

Once, when I was still working as a researcher I stayed in Oxford for a week. Life can get lonely when you go away to work, so my trick was always to find a good restaurant and a friendly bar. The restaurant I found in Oxford was Branca, a popular Italian on the edge of the trendy Jericho district. With welcoming staff and no urge to usher me out the door I often lingered over my evening meals, plus it was the place where I ate the best risotto I have ever had. I can’t to this day work out what made it so good….I know it had masala in it and finished with perfectly cooked scallops. It was so good I ordered it three nights in a row. I haven’t been to Oxford since so have no idea if they still make it, but the memory stayed with me.

My festival recovery risotto was less glamorous, but no less tasty. Chorizo is another favourite and armed with my stash from Trealy Farm a tin of artichokes I found in the cupboard, and some left over parmesan I set to cooking.

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Chorizo and artichoke risotto (serves up to 4 people)

2 small onions, finely chopped

2 fat cloves of garlic (or I used a quarter of a bulb of elephant garlic) finely chopped

50g butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

350g arborio rice

1 stick of Trealy farm sweet chorizo diced

100ml vermouth

750ml hot vegetable (or chicken) stock

6 artichokes, quartered taken from a tin

50g parmesan cheese (with a bit extra to grate on top)

Melt the butter and oil in a large pan and add onion. Sweat without browning for about 5 to 10 minutes or so. Add the garlic and rice and stir well to coat. Cook until the rice begins to turn slightly translucent (about 5 minutes) then turn the heat up a little and add the vermouth. Allow to bubble until the vermouth has almost been absorbed into the rice then begin to add the stock a ladle full at a time, waiting until it’s totally absorbed before adding the next.  It’s not necessary to stir continuously, but it is important to stir or shake the pan frequently to make sure the rice doesn’t stick and the starch in the rice has broken down. You may well run out of stock; if you do just add a little boiling water, but don’t over do it. You are looking for the rice to be ‘al dente’, soft, but with a bit of bite which should take about 15-20 minutes. If you want it softer just cook for another 5 minutes, but don’t overdo it.

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In a separate pan heat a little oil and when hot chuck in your chorizo. Fry briskly until just beginning to crisp then remove with a slotted spoon and add to the risotto.

Turn off the heat and add another knob of butter, the grated parmesan and the artichokes. Check seasoning then put a lid on the pan and allow to rest for a couple of minutes.

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An end of summer Salad Niçoise…put some sun back in your lunch

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Salad Niçoise evokes visions of lazy lunches in France, holidays, sunshine, the beach……please excuse me while I drift into hazy memories of camping in the Vendee with my kids….my first visit was with Rosie (the teen) when she was 11 months old. We camped next to the beach, bought fresh bread from the boulangerie, shopped in the Super U (French supermarket chain) and the market in Ile de Noirmoutier. Even in the supermarket the produce was fresh, local and a reflection of the warm, sunny climate. I returned again when my youngest kid was exactly the same age as Rosie had been on the first trip. This time we camped in an area of woods and forest, the smell of pine and sea air heightened our appetites and although at that point money was tight (eating out every night was beyond us), we filled our baskets once again with all the amazing produce grown in the area.  I vividly remember that the campsite take-away sold home-made boeuf bourguignon, not any old take away this! The beef melted in the mouth, the sauce thick, rich and supremely tasty with all the lingering flavourings from the wine in which the beef had been marinated.

Memories aside, I don’t think I ever actually ate a Salad Niçoise while in France. Soft boiled eggs are generally not my thing (I have a strange aversion to runny egg yolks, the only thing I physically cannot eat) and I know the kids would never have chosen a dish with anchovies or olives. These days that has changed (except for the anchovy bit) and the kids will eat it and I make nicoise a fair bit for parties and buffets. With the eye-catching colour contrast of the scarlet tomatoes, green lettuce and bright yellow eggs it really stands out.

With so much fresh local produce in my veg box, a glut of cute pink bantam eggs and a craving for a pretty salad to make me think summer will never end I set about making this slightly cheaty Salad Niçoise. I used runner beans (of which there is an unending supply at the moment) and not green beans, crisp lettuce hearts, beautiful and sweet deep red tomatoes, fresh basil and garlic and lots of (hard) boiled eggs. sorry, I know they should really be soft, but as I said I have this aversion. The missing ingredients were olives (which some people include, while others don’t) and anchovies, but I improvised with a can of green olives (stuffed with anchovies) found on the shelf of my local shop. This is not the perfect choice at all; they should really be the beautiful purpley French olives, or nice juicy fat black ones but in the absence of these (you can’t have Niçoise without olives) it worked all the same.

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Locally grown lettuce, tomatoes, basil and pretty pink bantam eggs from my hens

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add olives, anchovies, blanched runner beans and a basil garlic dressing made with flaked (Halen Mon) seasalt

Recipe: Salad Niçoise (to serve 4 as a main or up to 6 as an accompanying dish)

1 or 2 heads of crisp cos or little gem lettuce

5 ripe tomatoes quartered

5 eggs boiled (to your preference, mine were hard-boiled)

250g green beans or runner beans

6-8 nice fat anchovies (preferably from a fishmonger in a pack or tin packed in salt and washed before use). Jarred anchovies in oil should be washed before adding, and are not as tasty as the former.

100g purple or black olives

Dressing:

2 good tablespoons of red wine vinegar

100ml olive oil

1 fat clove of garlic chopped finely

a small handful of fresh basil leaves finely chopped

half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard

a good pinch of Halen Mon sea salt and ground black pepper

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Filed under British food, home cooking, local produce, Recipes, salads

Elderflower Presse: recipe

I’ve often listened to my mother regale guests with the story of my elderflower ‘champagne’.  I took them a bottle as a gift on one of my regular trips to London, and although I gave my aging parents strict instructions to unscrew the top slightly every now and again if they weren’t going to drink it immediately they failed to pay heed to my warning.  One day, long after I’d given it to them they discovered the bottle tucked in the back of the cupboard. They decided it was time to give it a try. My father oblivious to the impending danger he was placing himself in unscrewed the cap enthusiastically, swiftly and dramatically the bottle exploded. A highly pressured spray of elderflower champagne shot from the spout covering the walls, ceiling, cupboards, floor and him. He stepped back in shock, dripping from head to foot as the bottle, so full of long contained gas, spun like a dervish on the work surface spraying its contents on to every available surface including the mirror on the opposite side of the room.

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Pretty elder flowers

A less hazardous alternative to champagne is elderflower cordial. It’s one of those things I imagine they made back in the middle ages seeing as the plant has featured in legend and folklore since the early days of Christianity. Text refers to it as the Judas Tree, because Judas Iscariot allegedly hung himself from an elder tree after betraying Jesus, and seen as a symbol of sorrow.

In Scandinavian folklore the elder has more magical connections with goddesses and spirits believed to inhabit its branches, while in Anglo-Saxon stories it’s described as a blessed and protected plant. The belief being that anyone who damages an elder would be cursed, and the only just cause for cutting one down or taking a part of it, was as a cure or to make a protective charm. In this case the dryads, protective spirits of the tree, would be entreated on bended knee and with bowed head, with a request, reciting the words  “Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest” (Trogillus Arnkiel, a 17th century Germanic religious scholar, quoted in Grieve’s Modern Herbal)

Elder flowers have a firmly established place in the repertoire of herbal medicine; often used to treat inflammatory disorders, congestive conditions of the respiratory system especially when accompanied by fever, coughs, colds, flu, asthma and hay fever. The diaphoretic action helping to reduce fever and so ease the symptoms of measles, scarlet fever and other infections. The flowers, were also  added to a bath to soothe irritable nerves and itchy skin,  a tincture of them used as an eyewash for sore eyes, while a poultice made from the flowers could soothe ear ache.

These days the most common reason for collecting elderflowers is to make cordial. It’s sad that there’s such a short window of opportunity to do this. I always plan to get out picking in good time, but as usual life and work conspires against me and before I know it the end of the season is approaching, and I just have enough time to rush out and collect what I can before the sun scorches the remaining blooms to a grubby mucky brown. It’s not as if collecting them is an onerous job around here. Just a short walk around the block rewards with views most dream of, and usually yields more produce than one can cope with. In a half mile stretch of hedgerow and woods I can collect elder flowers (followed by elderberries),  blackberries, sloes, cob nuts plus assorted wild herbs and plants (sorrel, pennywort….the list goes on).

It’s funny how my kids love elderflower drinks but can’t stand the smell of the flowers. Aroma of ‘cats piss’ as the teen describes them, but still they are always happy to have freshly made cordial, which if I don’t hide it away disappears in a flash. This time I used my foraged flowers to make elderflower presse, rather than the slightly more explosive champagne and in addition to some cordial. A presse makes a refreshing drink, with less sugar than the cordial. I use limes instead of lemons, or as on this occasion a mixture of the two which produces a lovely citrussy drink for a hot summers day.

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A walk through the woods to find elder flowers

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bingo! Found a good tree full

I love the folklore and recurring theme’s of protection, mystery, witch craft, healing and superstition that run through every account of the elder in nature, but I guess the real message as I sit in the sun sipping my elderflower presse, is to treat the elder with respect and nature will give back in kind. This is a message that translates to all nature really and is important for us to remember now, at a time when so much of our natural resources are taken for granted, ignored and destroyed (do I sound like a bit of a hippy? Well, I don’t care, its true!)

Elderflower Presse:

about 8 large elderflower heads

8 litres water

2 and a half pounds / 1.2 k sugar

4 lemons

2 limes

4 tablespoons of mild white wine vinegar

You will need a big bucket with a tight-fitting lid and a fine sieve or large piece of muslin.

Dissolve the sugar in boiling water. Leave to cool then add the elder flowers, the juice of 2 lemons, 1 lime and then slice the others up and add along with the vinegar. Cover the bucket with the lid or with a cloth and leave for a day or two. Strain through a fine sieve or piece of muslin and store in screw top bottles. Leave for at least two weeks (but drink within a month or so).

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flowers and lemons steeping in a big bucket

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bottled

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Simple summer salads #1…tomato, basil, chives and torn mozzarella

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I keep being asked to suggest good ideas for salads; ones that are simple, quick to make and don’t use hundreds of ingredients.

Well this salad is so simple I’m almost embarrassed to blog about it. What’s not to love about this humble tomato, basil and mozzarella combo? It ticks all the boxes for me; its quick, goes with almost anything and is a real flavour explosion with freshly picked basil leaves, chopped chives and a sharp dressing made from rapeseed oil and balsamic vinegar.

The one important thing to remember is that its only as good as the ingredients you use. Don’t skimp or think that out of season tomatoes will give the same depth of flavour. They won’t.

Use fresh British tomatoes, the first of the season, freshly picked basil leaves and good quality mozzarella. Combine with as good a quality balsamic vinegar as you can afford and the same with the rapeseed oil (I use Cotswold Gold). If you do use the best you can afford, it makes a world of difference lifting something as simple as tomatoes, basil and mozzarella to a different level. Eat on the patio, or in the garden in the sun while you can…Enjoy!

Tomato, mozzarella, basil and chives:

Serves two to three people…or 4 to 6 if you up the ingredients…

250 – 500g freshly picked tomatoes (mixed colours, cherry, heritage…all work well as long as they are UK new season)

One or two good-sized balls of buffalo mozzarella (not the hard dry stuff used for pizza)

A handful of fresh basil leaves

3 to 6 tablespoons Cotswold Gold rapeseed oil

1 to 2 tablespoons of good quality balsamic vinegar

sea salt and pepper

chopped chives

Chop the tomatoes into a bowl, tear in the mozzarella and basil leaves. Make the dressing in a jar adding all the ingredients and shaking together. Pour over the salad. Finish with some snipped chives and there it is!! salad in 5 minutes.

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Authentic Italian lasagne; a simple family favourite

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I remember the days when my mother cooked us ‘exotic’ dinners. It was the 1970’s and early 80’s and she was experimental for the time. She didn’t entirely leave behind the post-war and rationing traditions of her parents generation; everything laced with a generous amount of butter, cheese and cream, but because she’d travelled widely and liked to cook she took inspiration from the food encountered on her trips around Europe. Later, when she married my step-father more cross cultural traditions entered the house. He grew up in Trinidad to a white family who held on to their British heritage, although he much preferred Caribbean food and company. Rum punch entered our lives, as did cauliflower ‘Roman’.

We lived on the local council estate where our decidedly ‘middle class’ diet and eccentric ways were something of a novelty in the street. From the books that lined our walls to the high brow discussions that took place over the dinner table our upbringing was not financially rich, but was eclectic and intellectual often leaving friends somewhat bemused when they came to visit.

One of my favourite dinners was a simple plate of home-made beef lasagne. This dish, along with moussaka, crepes stuffed with mediterranean vegetables and parmesan, and her famous ‘Saturday chicken’  are meals inextricably linked to my teenage years. They remind me of a time of food discovery, experimentation and a bustling house.

Mum’s lasagne would have given any Italian cook a run for their money. It consisted of dryish layers of deliciously thick and tomatoey bolognaise sauce, alternated with layers of bechamel, dried pasta blanched in  plenty of hot water and finished with plenty of parmesan cheese. Mum’s was not the lasagne of the traditional British cook or supermarket. It wasn’t falling apart and the sauce didn’t run off the plate (although as a teenager I rather liked it like this, not caring a jot for authenticity and happily mopping up sauce with crisp lettuce and cucumber slices). Mum made a good lasagne which improved after it had stood a while, or the next day.

Much to the horror of my waistline my love for rich, sauce laden dinners has stayed with me (although these days I try not to cook them so much as I’m less able to burn off the pounds in the way I did as a teen). The simple lasagne however holds special memories of those loud communal dinners, evoking warm, safe feelings that only comfort food from childhood can. Its one of those dishes I crave when I need a carb hit, or if I’m a bit under the weather.

Over the years I have made different versions of lasagne. In my vegetarian days I regularly made vegetable lasagne with eggplant, courgette, peppers and tomatoes or even a mushroom, tomato and ricotta concoction. My favourite layered spinach with tomato sauce, mozzarella and ricotta. I didn’t mind the these variations and much prefered them to the version my daughter got me to make with chicken or turkey mince (for the teen who won’t eat beef). In he end though there is always a bit missing from the jigsaw. The pieces just don’t fit together in the way a simple, traditional beef bolognaise and bechamel do.

Here is my tried and tested version.

Serves 4 to 6

Two tablespoons of olive or rapeseed oil

1 large onion finely chopped

1 carrot, peeled and grated

1 stick of celery finely chopped

1 large clove of garlic, finely chopped

750g good quality beef mince

100ml of red or white wine (red gives a richer, deeper flavour)

1 tin of chopped tomatoes or the same amount of passata

100ml good beef stock

1 teaspoon or dessertspoonful tomato puree (optional, but it produces an even more intensely rich tomato sauce)

salt and pepper

50g butter

50g plain flour

1 pint (500ml) milk

enough pasta to make 3 layers. I used bigger sheets of fresh pasta which needed no pre-cooking so it only took 5 sheets

about 100g parmesan cheese to finish the dish

Preheat the oven to gas mark 6, 200 degrees C

Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Gently fry the onion until almost soft hen add the carrot and cook for another 5 minutes. Add celery and garlic and continue to cook. Add the mince and turn the heat up a bit to brown it (5 to 10 mins). Add the wine and allow to bubble until it reduces a bit then add the tomatoes and stock. Season with salt, pepper and simmer gently for about an hour. It should be almost dry by the time it’s cooked.

To make the bechamel sauce melt the butter in a medium pan, then stir in the flour cooking for a minute or two. Remove from the heat and gradually add the milk stirring into the butter/flour paste well. When it’s all mixed return the pan to the heat and cook gently until it comes to the boil and begins to thicken. Stir continually so it doesn’t turn lumpy. Season well with salt and pepper.

To assemble the lasagne, take a deep, wide dish and coat the bottom with about a third of the meat sauce. Add a layer of pasta then a layer of bechamel, then another layer of sauce, pasta, bechamel and finish with a layer of pasta. Pour over the rest of the bechamel and sprinkle over the cheese. Cook in the oven for 40 minutes, until golden brown and bubbling.

If you have time leave the lasagne to rest for about 15 minutes before serving.

NB. If you but dried lasagne that needs precooking, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and add a couple of drops of olive oil. Add a few sheets of pasta at a time blanching for one minute or so. Remove with tongs and leave to dry on a tea towel or plate before using in your dish.

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I didn’t wait to let my lasagne rest. I was too hungry. But it holds together even better if you are patient.

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