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I often reminisce as to the joys of my Granny’s pea soup with fried bread.

I used to love walking into the house on a cold, bleak day to the smell of gammon bubbling in its cauldron of yellow split peas.  If truth be told, when done well, pea soup is probably one of my favourite dishes of all time.

I remember we’d dry our rain-wet hair and crowd around the dining table.  Snuggled round a small, circular table, elbows touching, necks down plunging spoons into the golden, lava-hot, gloopy, yellow split pea soup we’d share our morning’s routines.

 The delicious chunks of gammon having imparted their flavour and savouriness to the mixture, which falling apart added great flavour and substance to the dish.  Scooping ham and soup on slices of fried bread is what made this soup a meal.

My Granny would shallow fry a slice of white bread per person – crusts and all – and then slice it on the diagonal.   This, dipped into the thick pea soup was utter heaven to me.

I love yellow split pea and ham soup so much, that my shock at once being given green pea and ham soup by my great aunt was an unfortunate disappointment; flavoursome though it was!  But my all time favourite pea soup tale was when I was a vegetarian (now that I’ve told you I may have to kill you!) and I’d returned from university and my Granny had made my favourite dish and assured me that she hadn’t added the ham but you could see the pink gammon flecks throughout the entire bowl!  I think she then tried to offer me a cheese sandwich with a very thin slice of ham…

Admittedly, my Granny was right; there is no point in having pea soup without the gammon.  It’s the gammon that imparts a full on rounded flavour and seasons the soup with great depth.  Sometimes, pieces of the gammon flake off in the cooking and get blitzed into the soup adding to the savoury baconness!

A different kind of meal to be had at this time of year where everything is either a turkey dinner or Christmas table leftovers.

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At this time of year I always like to make a glazed ham (as many of you do too).  As always, I buy a large piece to ensure there are leftovers but there’s only so many cold-cuts with chutneys to be had.   With the rain pouring down outside, I want something warm and comforting instead of cold-cuts, so why not add your already cooked ham to a pot of bubbling yellow split peas to make glorious pea soup with its volcanic ferocity warming you through these cold and dark nights.

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Yellow split pea soup is so easy to recreate you can cook the gammon in the soup itself or add cooked ham pieces to the final soup.  Either way – this is a delicious thick soup that like a hot water bottle warms and comforts you.  Fried bread takes this to another level but pan fried croutons or the healthier oven variety convert this into a satisfying main course.

I keep this really simple:

Ingredients:

1 cup of split peas, 1 medium onion, slice of pumpkin to add colour and sweetness and a stock cube.  Uncooked gammon or leftover boiled ham to taste.

4323177072-IMG-4600Method:

1st: Cut the onion and pumpkin into pieces and fry in some oil until the onion becomes soft.
2nd: Add the split peas and crumble in the stock cube. Stir well and add the gammon/boiled ham.
3rd: Top up with enough water to cover the gammon – at least 3 times more water to split peas.  Boil for 35mins or until the gammon is cooked.  Season to taste.
4th: Remove any large chunks of gammon and blitz the soup.  Flake any gammon pieces and add them to individual bowls.
5th: Fry slices of plastic white bread in hot oil.  Slice on the diagonal and serve up.

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If I could only use one herb or spice for the rest of my life, seasoning aside, I would have to (pun intended) stick with cinnamon.

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Spice prized for both flavour and medicinal properties; the brown coloured, woody spice is evocatively aromatic with warming sweet and savoury notes at the same time.

Ancient Romans used cinnamon to make their bitter wine palatable and Ancient Greeks used cinnamon to season meat and vegetable dishes.  The Arabic world used it to flavour tea and now include it in most sweet and savoury dishes.  The rest of the world add it to baked goods and continue to sprinkle it over sweet treats and desserts.

Cinnamon is high in antioxidants and contains anti-inflammatory properties; it helps protect cognitive function, the heart and fight diabetes.  Regular cinnamon use, such as sprinkled over your morning porridge, can help lower your glycemic load and even help you to lose weight.

In cooking, the sweet-spicy flavour and warmth of cinnamon enhances the taste of fruits and vegetables, is a perfect partner for chocolate and no apple pie would be worth eating without cinnamon.

When baking with cinnamon, the entire house smells comforting and feels safe, warm and homely.

As the temperature drops and autumn makes itself known to us it’s this feeling of comfort and warmth that I’m trying to evoke through my food but I’m not ready for hot custard over fruit crumbles sprinkled with cinnamon nor hearty stews infused with cinnamon stick; something sweet to accompany a morning coffee sounds just right and there is nothing better than a cinnamon roll in the morning (or at any other time of day!)

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Proper cinnamon rolls can be cumbersome to make as you need to make an enriched dough, allow time to prove etc. as can be seen above but they are seriously good to eat.  However, there are a couple of cheats that make this easy to do for breakfast without even having changed out of your PJ’s.

Cheat Cinnamon Rolls

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Ingredients:
1 Pack of Puff Pastry
Melted butter
Brown Sugar
Cinnamon powder
Icing Sugar and water for the glaze

Method:
1st: Spread the melted butter over the unrolled puff pastry
2nd:  Sprinkle over the brown sugar and cinnamon powder.
3rd: Roll the pastry back up and cut into slices.
Place in a preheated oven at 200˚C for 10-14mins or until puffed and golden.
4th: Allow to cool on a wire rack and once cool prepare your glaze.  Drizzle over your cinnamon rolls.

Vietnamese cuisine is one of the most varied on the planet.  From the Chinese and Khmer dynasties, Indian empire and Japanese occupation but in particular, the French colonial rulers.  Vietnam is a delicious mix of the food of its colonial visitors and native techniques and flavours.  War, climate and immigration tell the tale of Vietnamese cuisine.  

Vietnamese cuisine is incredibly light and fresh; herby-fresh: lemongrass, mint, coriander and Thai basil frequently mixed through dishes.  Fish sauce is used liberally but is never as pungent as the Thai variety (nam pla) and vegetables such as carrot, cabbage or green papaya are chopped into crunchy batons adding colour and texture to a dish.

People sat curbside on plastic stools enjoying a bowl of pho or congee before dealing with the rest of their day; the smell of food wafting through side streets and intoxicating the senses.   Food is pivotal to Vietnamese lifestyle and can be found on every street corner.  The food served in local cafes and restaurants just as good as the street-food served by women carrying a yoke around the town or balancing baskets on hips.

All dishes are created with the Asian principle of the five elements creating harmony. The principle of yin and yang providing balance that is beneficial to the body: wood (sour), fire (bitter), earth (sweet), metal (spicy), water (salty).

So having just got back from my travels in Vietnam I couldn’t wait to get back in the kitchen and try and recreate some delicious Vietnamese dishes with these principles in mind.

Here is my version of a Vietnamese Chicken Salad with noodles using the ingredients I had in the fridge at the time.

Vietnamese Chicken Salad (Gŏi Gá).

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Ingredients:
For the dressing:
Limes
Palm sugar
Fish Sauce
Garlic
Hot Water
Chilli (to taste)

For the salad:
Carrot
Cabbage (White or Asian)
Red Pepper
Sugar snap peas
Rice Noodles (vermicelli)
Cooked chicken breast
Mint
Basil (use Thai Basil if you can find some)
Coriander
Roasted peanuts (red skinned)

Method:

1st: Prepare the sauce by adding the juice of a lime, palm sugar, fish sauce, minced garlic, chilli and hot water to a jar and shake well until all the sugar is dissolved or place into a blender and blitz until everything is thoroughly mixed together.

2nd: Cut the carrot and red pepper into batons.  Roll the cabbage leaves and slice into strips.  Tear the cooked chicken breast into mouth sized pieces.   Cut the mint, basil and coriander.

Thai Basil v Italian Basil
Thai basil has an aniseed, almost liquorice, flavour to it whereas, Italian (Mediterranean basil) is sweet.  Both are incredibly fragrant.
If you can’t find Thai basil which is generally difficult to source outside of Asia, just use a combination of Italian basil and mint.

3rd: Pour boiling water over the vermicelli noodles and allow to rehydrate for 2/3mins.  Drain and rinse in cold water.  Drain and shake off excess water.

4th: In a large bowl mix all the ingredients together and add a splash of the sauce.  Toss together.  Add more sauce and lime juice to taste and drizzle with sesame oil (optional) and top with roasted peanuts.

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Serve heaped on a large plate in the centre of the table for everyone to serve themselves as part of a main course or make it small enough as a light lunch for one – the ingredients can be doubled up and changed to suit what you’ve got in the fridge.  During the summer I tend to have carrots and cabbage knocking about in the fridge to make coleslaw and I’ve always got red peppers in my deep freeze.  Remember to use veg that you can eat raw as you need it to be fresh and crunchy to work in this dish. I used nuggets of palm sugar brought back from Cambodia but regular granulated sugar works just as well.

The great thing about dishes like this is that you can tailor make them to suit your needs – instead of chicken add duck for a different taste, fried squid to make it a super light summer meal, tofu to keep it meat-free.  I say chilli to taste as depending on how much heat you can take will determine whether you use birds eye chillies or opt for a milder variety.  Always remember you could make this very fresh and mild and provide either birds eye chillies or tabasco sauce for those who can take a bit more heat.

Chúc ngon miêng
Bon apetite!

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Pancake Day aka Shrove Tuesday aka Mardi Gras

Shrove Tuesday is once again upon us and everyone will be stocking up on flour, eggs, milk to make their runny batter and have a gluttonous sugary feast before being shriven of these excesses in diet as well as in life.

As a child, I was brought up with the tradition of crêpes scattered with sugar and a squeeze of lemon. I never really went in for the jam, chocolate spread, ice cream concoctions which many favour now but I dare say if you’re going in for one full on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) kind of blowout, the lemon-sugar variety does seem somewhat austere.

For me it wasn’t necessarily about the pancake eating, even though I had more than my fair share of them, but more about the sheer fun of the evening spent watching everyone have a go at tossing the pancake and then regaling everyone at school about how high we managed to successfully toss the pancake into the air; or alternatively any hilarious anecdotes.

Normally I have supper followed by a pancake tossing session for dessert but recently I have tried to make the pancake my evening meal.  Hence why I’ve been trying to find alternatives to the standard runny batter crêpe to enjoy on Shrove Tuesday.  In the past I’ve made American style pancakes, savoury courgette and cheese ones and last year enjoyed an avocado and banana pancake. This year, I’ve attempted making banana pancakes with only 2 ingredients. Yes. Only 2 ingredients. Eggs and bananas.

Literally blitz 2 eggs and 2 bananas in a blender to create the batter and then fry the pancake dollops on a lightly buttered skillet. They have a foam-banana sweet taste and smell. If you don’t like bananas give these a go with a splash of vanilla extract or cinnamon. The eggs soufflé the banana mixture making these incredibly light and fluffy. Take care as you flip them as they have a tendency to break as you turn them. Seriously given these a go. Please, just try them.

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Drizzle them with maple syrup, sprinkle cinnamon or icing sugar and sliced bananas.

Happy Birthday Robbie Burns!!
Here’s a simple 3 course Burns Night Menu for anyone who wants to give it a go. Auld Lang Syne

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On 25th January, we celebrate the life of Robbie Burns.  Many of us have often gone to organised Robbie Burns Nights where the festivities begin with The Selkirk Grace followed by a procession of pipes, tributes and toasts paid to the haggis before a dinner of ‘haggis, neeps and tatties’ followed by speeches; The Immortal Memory and a Toast to the Lassies with a reply to the Laddies.

Generally there is also much revelling in between and a bit more than a wee dram of whiskey (always scotch) must be consumed.

Finally the evening is called to a close by everyone being asked to stand, hold hands and sing Auld Lang Syne.

However, for those of you that want to give this a go at home, without the traditional order of ceremony only need follow my recipe ideas below for a fuss free feast of an evening.  All recipes…

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Gallery  —  Posted: January 25, 2018 in Uncategorized

French Toast

Posted: January 25, 2018 in Breakfast, home cooking, Weekend

The origins of French Toast are very unclear.  The English sometimes refer to French Toast as Eggy Bread, unless it’s the slightly more medieval reincarnation called Poor Knights of Windsor*, the French call it Pain Perdu, “lost bread” more because the bread has become stale and you’ve lost the chance to eat it fresh rather than you’ve misplaced it! The Spanish know them as Torijas, cinnamon French Toast soaked in syrup.   Was it a French chef who came up with the idea or a person called Chef French who in 1724 created this for the first time? To further add to the mystery, over the years there has also been some confusion as to Gypsy Bread and Gypsy Egg, where one should not be confused with the other; the former refers to eggy bread, french-toast style and the latter to Huevos A La Flamenca!

*Poor Knights of Windsor is a dish very similar to French Toast.  However, unlike French Toast, it is sugar and sherry that are stirred into a shallow dish of milk before dipped on both sides in egg yolk and then frying in butter.  These “Poor Knights” are then sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and served with jam.

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Personally, French Toast makes for the perfect weekend breakfast. 

Just: soak your bread, get your coffee ready, steam your milk, fry your bread and you’re pretty much good to go. 

It’s slightly more difficult than a slice of toast or a bowl of cereals but something quite easy to make at a leisurely pace.  Nothing too strenuous nor stressful and very manageable to put together whilst still wearing your pyjamas. 

I’m not quite sure I’d like to wake up to a boozy version of this, hence why the poor knights might never make it to my breakfast table.

Bread

Of paramount importance.  The bread you choose is pretty much what makes this.  Now is not the time for granary, wholemeal, spelt flour varieties – the flavour would interfere too much with the final outcome.  Pale, light, plastic bread, slightly stale, is probably going to be your best soaking vehicle that won’t disintegrate into a porridgy-crumb but for me it has to be the sweet enriched dough of challah bread – a braided Jewish bread made with eggs – that to me always comes courtesy of Idan Greenberg at Verdi Verdi, Gibraltar.  Sliced challah holds its shape perfectly after soaking in the eggy mixture, maintaining its shape and firm crust as it fries.

Challah bread making at Verdi Verdi, Gibraltar.

Mixture

There are several different variations of the eggy mixture – some people use cream instead of milk in the mixture, others will add spices such as cinnamon and flavours like vanilla, lemon & orange zest, others will use caster sugar in the mixture rather than sprinkling it over at the end, others will make a sugar syrup to dunk the French Toast (torijas) in after they come out of the frying pan.

Personally, I think one egg per person, splosh of milk, cinnamon, icing sugar as this dissolves in the milk and vanilla are your essential ingredients and anything straying from there will depend on what you’re going to eat drizzled or spooned over your French Toast. 

Nothing is wrong and everything is right.

Soaking the mixture varies on the type of bread used, how stale it is and the thickness which you’ve cut the slice.  You can soak it from anything from 30 secs a side to 20 mins; some wait for all the liquid to be absorbed.  I go with my eye as I don’t want the bread to disintegrate on touch!  I usually tend to go for around 5mins a side and if there is too much liquid left I’ll give it an extra few mins for good measure, as you do want the eggy mixture to permeate through as much of the bread as possible to almost soufflé the bread as it cooks.

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Only two options – put it in the oven or fry it – but to be totally honest, oven baked eggy bread sounds as if it might end up dry and leathery.  So for me, it’s frying all the way.

Frying must be in butter but by the time you’ve turned the toast around to fry the other side, the butter has turned brown (noisette) and adds an unpleasant taste to your French Toast and an odd smell to the kitchen!  Adding sunflower/vegetable oil will help stop the butter burning but this is not a guarantee as butter no matter what its mixed with will still burn.  However, a clever alternative is using clarified butter. 

Topping

Cinnamon & Vanilla flavoured French Toast is great as it is but I always like mine topped with some fruit compote or even a drizzle of maple syrup or if I’m being particularly greedy, both.

To make the fruit compote is very easy: put some fresh/frozen berries in a pan with some water and sugar.  Boil it down until the liquid has reduced and the fruit mixture syrupy.  On this occasion I even added some luscious strawberry jam given to me as a food gift.

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Remember to get your Challah on Friday and surprise someone this Weekend!

Like many families, in my house, we used to refer to Cottage Pie as Shepherd’s Pie.  Beef mince was always available from the butchers and was far more economical for a family of seven than lamb would be.  Topped with golden mashed potato that had caught under the grill; everyone coveting the crispy bits and a generous scoop of baked beans on the side.

And as far as I was concerned, everyone called it the same and served it the same way.

It wasn’t until recently that I was served Shepherd’s Pie without baked beans and felt cheated.  “My Granny would never have served it like that!” I snorted in disgust.  Only to find I was not the only one at the table who thought the same – lo and behold, the others also agreed that baked beans were a very acceptable addition to a serving of Shepherd’s Pie.  Emboldened by this camaraderie I decided to come clean and tell all; as a child, my favourite way of eating this was with a squeeze of ketchup over the mash and then mixing everything together into a plateful of dark, pink-brown gloop studded with baked beans.

As revolting as this sounds to me now – as a child, it was a plate of sheer delight.

Click on the link to see my youtube clip on how to make my easy Cottage Pie: https://tinyurl.com/zxp42sa

I don’t tend to make shepherd’s pie (cottage pie) from scratch anymore, as in I try not to have to go food shopping too often, so make this using leftover beef from the Sunday Roast instead.  In the past I’ve used leftover roast potatoes but to be honest it’s so easy to make good mashed potato to top the pie that it’s really no hardship.  Whereas baked beans would have been my staple side dish, nowadays I try and have something green either in the pie or on the side.  Leftover broccoli, peas and beans are very welcome as is a buttery tangle of spring greens or shredded Savoy cabbage.

The good thing about a Shepherd’s Pie (Cottage Pie) is that you can make the components in advance.  I made the beef pie filling on Monday evening as this can sit in its dish in the fridge until you need to top it and heat it – I’m pretty sure you can freeze it at this stage too.  Take the pie out of the fridge whilst you’re making the mashed potato and top the dish.  Place in a moderate oven for 35mins until the filling is bubbling up the sides and the top is golden in colour.

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I don’t know what the allure of cooking lentils at New Years is for me but I always like to start the year cooking a warm bowlful of them.

It’s not as if I’m looking for something warm and filling as the weather has been sunny and mild over the holiday period and I’m stuffed after eating so much.

So what is it that draws me to cooking lentils at this at this time of year?

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Maybe it’s their versatility? Lentils can be cooked by themselves or added to vegetable, meat or fish dishes. They can be served as a side, as with salmon and lentils or as the main component as in a lentil salad or stew.  They come in a range of colours and with it bring their own textures and tastes.  Some lentils such as red split lentils boil down to the consistency of mashed potatoes whereas other hold their shape and retain their nutty bite even after boiling them for 45mins as with green lentils.  My favourite variety are Puy lentils also called French green lentils – which are slate green/blue in colour and have a peppery warmth to them. 

For some, lentils have a hessian weave hippie vibe about them; vegans rave about them whilst for others they are just austere, peasant food.  After all, the original lentil stew, mess of pottage, was biblical in origin.  Now, I wouldn’t necessarily consider lentils austerity food but after the expense of the Christmas foodathon they are very welcome on my pocket!

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Italians, consider lentils to be lucky as their small coin-shaped form invites prosperity.  Perfectly partnered with pork increases their success; the pig known for pushing forwards, makes it a symbol of progress. Lentils with pork sausages are considered particularly auspicious. 

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But perhaps it’s the ease with which the stew comes together.  It’s so personal it’s not really a case of following a recipe it’s more about getting the quantities right of lentils to water and packing flavour.  And lentils are great at taking on flavour.  There is also very little for the cook to actually do.  After mass catering over the holidays and following strict recipes and cooking times, just throwing things into a pot of water is quite liberating and relaxing.  It’s also a great way to use up veg you’ve got knocking about in the back of the fridge.  There are no stages or steps to follow and other than not letting your lentils dry out as they boil, there really isn’t much danger of the dish going wrong.

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I tend to favour lentils cooked with chorizo as the paprika from the sausages oozes out into the stew giving everything great body and depth – maximising flavour with very little effort.  This time I had a rasher of streaky bacon and two sausages leftover from new year’s breakfast that I decided to add to the pot as well as pumpkin and chorizo.  At the very end of the cooking process I wilted shredded spring greens (leftover from Christmas Eve’s dinner) in the residual heat of the pot.

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I must admit, I came to the sweet potato party quite late in life. Considering I eat pretty much anything I don’t know why I’ve been so ambivalent towards the sweet potato / boniato.

Perhaps it’s the way I’ve always seen it prepared; baked jacket-potato style with its orange flesh collapsing in on itself and scooped straight out of its blistered skin. And what is it about the skin that takes on irregular shiny-caramel looking spots where the flesh is peeking through? And when mixed in with carrots and parsnips as part of the Sunday roast veggies drizzled in maple syrup, the sweet potato pretty much disintegrates into the buttery maple juices at the bottom of the pan.

I think I may have answered my own question!

At a party years ago, I remember there was a sweet potato and peanut butter filo parcel which all the veggies were enjoying but I couldn’t decide whether i liked it or wondered whether it should be dessert; all it needed was some vanilla ice cream and a dusting of icing sugar and I’d have been happy…I think.

But it was on a trip to LA that my love for the sweet potato was restored. After several food blow outs I fancied something light but not salad-light(!) and came across a plain chicken breast with fries dish on the menu, that as it arrived on the table I thought, wow these American potatoes are really orange! After the first bite I realised they were sweet potato fries, duh! However, they were sweet, salty and acidic all in one bite. My eyes lit up, they were coated in salt, and freshness of lime zest and juice screamed through.

Since sweet potatoes and boniatos (white fleshed Caribbean sweet potatoes) are currently in season what better way to celebrate them than to try and recreate these lime, salty, sweet potato fries which I have shamelessly decided to call, margarita sweet potato fries; the tequila is optional.

Note: cutting them thicker makes for lighter work but they take longer to cook.

Grill some chicken breasts and corn on the cob to make this a great mid-week family supper. But I warn you, the first time I made this I ate the entire tray of sweet potato fries and left everything else!

 

 

 

…sweet potato fries which I have shamelessly decided to call,
margarita sweet potato fries; the tequila is optional…

Margarita Sweet Potato Fries

1st: Preheat the oven to 210°C

2nd: Wash the sweet potatoes to remove any soil or grit they may still have and slice into fries or wedges should you wish. There is no need to peel them.

3rd: Drizzle with olive oil and season well with salt flakes, pepper and lime zest.

4th: Cook in the oven for anything from 25 to 40 mins depending on size. Try to turn them once and get good colour on them throughout the cooking process.

5th: Squeeze lime juice over them as they come out of the oven and sprinkle with fresh coriander.

These fries are great with chicken but make a tasty accompaniment to grilled pork loin and white fish; anything that will pair well with zesty lime juice.

Whether you eat them as a side dish or as the main I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.