Silk Purse, Sow’s Ear: Creamy Cider Chicken

I was all-too-aware of this blog already becoming a one-note piece, with every recipe being some form of cake or baked good. I realise baking recipes are always wanted in the modern age of Bake Off, especially as we are heading full-throttle towards Christmas now.

I always place supreme importance on the evening meal. Opening a tin (unless I’m cooking with it – tinned beans and veg should be a staple in anyone’s cupboard) or stabbing some holes in the top of a plastic sheet are just not my thing and never have been. You’ll be surprised what you can rustle up if you just have a quick hunt around your freezer, fridge and store cupboards. If there’s one time I must eat well, it’s in the evening. But I’ll climb swiftly down from my high horse and get to the recipe in hand.

This came about after one such forage, as I’m currently (mostly – it’s the festive season and I allow myself the odd frivolous splurge in the kitchen) on a ‘use what you have’ kick after spending quite a bit of time on the inspirational Jack Monroe’s blog. Monroe has really turned me on to budgeting tighter with food shopping and just using my brain a bit to get through those ageing tins and packets in my store cupboard. Although thank God I’m not in the position she was in, where it was necessity to feed a growing child on next to nothing, I still think in an age of shockingly high food waste (Hugh’s War On Waste also left an indelible mark on my conscience) we all should be judicious and just try and make use of what’s already in the house.

Braising can transform any bit of meat into something good, and this recipe has a whiff of the French bistro about it in its taste. And any liquid is fair game for braising, which is why I’m not joking when I’ve listed Strongbow cider in the ingredients. I don’t hold with snobbishness in cooking, and I drink the stuff without regret. Cider is a popular braising agent for pork but I couldn’t see why it could zhuzh up some freezer-burned chicken thigh fillets I had buried in there. I am a firm believer in the thigh fillet – half the price, twice the flavour of stringy breast.  If I’d had some fiery wholegrain mustard at the time then that would have gone in too. I had the dregs of a bottle of Normandy Calvados that was too scant for even a weak cocktail and some cream in the fridge that also needed using up.

I’m not saying go out and buy a bottle of Calvados especially, if you have brandy in the cupboard, use that, or leave it out if you don’t have either!  The carrots provide a decent vegetable bulk, so just serve over any starch you fancy – I made it with some plain white rice, but buttered noodles would be good, as would be some mash. And if you want to put greens on the side, feel free. Use what’s to hand.

I almost forgot to take a photo of it so sorry it’s not the best entry in food styling. Anyway, here’s the recipe:

Creamy Cider Chicken

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1 onion, chopped
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
3-4 chicken thigh fillets, cubed
splash Calvados
splash cider vinegar
2-3 carrots, sliced diagonally
Generous pinch mixed herbs
1 can (440ml) Strongbow cider (or any cider you have)
rougly 100ml double cream

  1. Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and garlic and saute until soft.
  2. Add chicken pieces and carrot slices and stir to combine.
  3. Splash over Calvados and cider vinegar and let bubble for a few seconds.
  4. Pour over the cider and bring to a boil.
  5. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30-35 minutes or until chicken is cooked through and tender.
  6. Remove lid and add the cream, stirring to combine and simmer for just a few minutes over a low heat to allow flavours to mingle but try not to let it split. It shouldn’t be too watery but if you want it thicker, slake some cornflour with a little water and add until thickened to your liking.
  7. Serve over any plain starchy accompaniment your heart desires – rice, pasta or mashed potato and enjoy.
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Culinary Chatter: An Ode to Nigella And How I Got Into Cooking

After the ranty, furious premiere entry in theCulinary Chatter section, here I am taking a far more positive tone, you’ll be pleased to hear!

Anyone who forays into food and cooking as a passion will have done so for a reason, be it watching their mother or grandmother as a young child, having to do so to help raise a struggling family for example. I myself had always enjoyed watching food programmes growing up (I can remember avidly watching Delia’s How To Cook, and the long-forgotten series Good Living fronted by queen of birthday cakes, Jane Asher whenever I had a sick day from school if it was on TV – my mom would have it on), and both my parents went to catering college (where they met before their marriage) so we were fed mostly home-cooked food with the odd de-rigeur frozen favourites beloved of any child growing up in the Nineties to boot.

But I definitely cite my culinary inspiration occurred around the age of 12. Spring 2001.

Who or what was mine? If you haven’t read the title, my culinary inspiration is one Nigella Lawson.

Nigella Lawson
Nigella Lawson helped me find my passion for food

Nigella Bites season two was hitting the Channel 4 airwaves. I first came across Lawson when my mother received ‘How To Be A Domestic Goddess’ for Christmas 2000, but hadn’t seen her until the cover of the Radio Times the week Bites series 2 went out.

At risk of sounding like an obsessed stan, something about Nigella, her undeniable beauty, her totally unpatronising manner, her warmth…the deliciousness and simplicity of her recipes, captivated me. I remember being determined to cook from her books whenever Food Tech (is it still called this nowadays?) set us a task using actual cookbooks as opposed to a photocopied recipe issued to the whole class. The first recipe of hers I attempted (badly) was for johnnycakes from ‘Domestic Goddess – it was the only Nigella book my mom had after all – for a ‘breakfast’ Food Tech task.

I also remember in my GCSE days trying to cook her courgette fritters from ‘Forever Summer’ (I had one episode on a much-watched VCR taped from the TV and watched it many times – making compilation videos using various recorded TV shows was a shortlived hobby of mine in 2002) but having to substitute half the ingredients because I didn’t like them (fussy teenage palate struck). They didn’t turn out too badly but I think I missed the point a bit.

Her Christmas Kitchen series in 2006 after a long hiatus (we didn’t get Feast on British TV) was a joy to watch – the way it was shot and lit, her inimitable warm and friendly demeanour…the recipes themselves. I am an evangelical Christmas fiend despite ten years in food retail threatening to make me hate it and the series sums it up for me – warm spices, food that’s just the right side of decadently naughty, fairy lights, rituals and traditions. Do I share her passions for the festive season because it’s Nigella or did it just so happen that way? I can’t answer.

All I know, for the past few years, I always watch the Christmas Kitchen (and Fanny Cradock Cooks For Christmas! Don’t laugh.) as a ritual over the festive season to really get me in the Christmas mood. The Nigella Christmas book is my bible this time of year – I’ve worked my way through many of the chutneys, the chilli jam is non-negotiable and always made on the 23rd of December ready for the barrage of leftover sarnies to come after the big day, whilst at least one evening in the 12th month will be spent eating the lamb tagine from the book followed by the Quickly Scaled Mont Blanc from Express.

I even have cooked a ‘mock’ Christmas dinner (as a form of training/dress rehearsal for when it eventually falls to me to be in charge of it on the actual day) for the past 3 holiday seasons (usually on the last weekend before Christmas itself) and I have adopted her cranberry and bread sauces, her fabulous roast potatoes (albeit not in goose fat as we have a vegetarian in this house)  and her gingerbread stuffing as compulsory additions to my own (mock) Christmas dinner table. Because of our household size, I haven’t yet roasted a turkey, just a chicken for this, but last year I brined it using her patented superjuicy method. Like every recipe of hers thus far, it worked beautifully even with just a humble £4 supermarket chicken.

While I am well aware that La Lawson’s readership and following is in the millions across the world and I am not unique in this, but I just wanted to share whom inspired me to find so much pleasure in cooking and writing about food as I do.

I suppose I better bring in 2013, the bad year for Nigella. I will keep my opinions on the press’s demonisation of her and the awful ‘jokes’ beloved of Youtube commenters and retweet-scavengers to myself, but I will happily state that I decided to show my support for her – not by going all Chris Crocker and making an arse of myself on Youtube – but by cooking as many of her recipes as I could during the time this was going on and sharing the results on Twitter by tagging them #TeamNigella. After all, cookbook writing is how Lawson made, and continues to make, her name and fortune. And I felt the best way to honour and defend her against the tabloids and the Twitter trolls is to freaking well use her work.

After I shared some photos on Twitter of some chutneys from Christmas that I’d made; much to my joy and disbelief, I received not one, but two direct messages from Nigella herself, thanking me.

It was all I ever could have hoped for. Nigella noticed my support during a truly horrible time for her. She acknowledged me. She didn’t have to. But she did. And that was the ultimate validation. Someone whom I idolised and put on my culinary pedestal for over a decade thanked me for supporting her when many were turning on her in desperate bids to get the most retweets and become the ultimate Internet ‘comedian’.

It is rather vulgar to name-drop and frankly sad to base one’s existence on another person in the public eye, I know. I even admit that beecause of how much Lawson means to me, she is that one personality whom I admire (read: I stan hard for her) that I will not hear a word against. Much like Cradock placed Escoffier on a pedestal, or your average gay would place Britney Spears or Beyoncé. I realise if she read this she may give me a wide berth afterwards should she ever encounter me at a signing, for example (to be honest should I ever be lucky enough to cross paths with Nigella, I would have no idea what to say to her and probably cower in fear).

After all this waffle, I still can’t succinctly describe just why I chose Lawson over the likes of Slater, Delia, Ramsay or Oliver. I have other TV cooks whom I enjoy watching (The Hairy Bikers and American Youtube sensation Laura Vitale are two other contenders) but nobody seems to strike quite the same note to me as Lawson. I always find something reassuring about cooking one of her recipes (none have failed me yet) and the first time I make one, I will follow it rigidly as written, even spending more on ingredients on occasion rather than go for the suggested easier-to-obtain substitute that she so often cites within her writing.

Many like to mock Lawson, whether it’s her appearance (simple jealousy on the detractor’s part if you ask me), her use of the occasional ‘fancy’ ingredient (ignorance – many of these ‘fancy’ things are easily available online and in supermarkets these days -I found spelt spaghetti in Sainsbury’s the other month for example  and breakfast radishes were stocked at my local Waitrose), the 2013 debacle, the fact that she might, quelle-horreur, use an ingredient that’s maligned by the food fascists such as cream or butter, or simply her colourful use of language when describing food, which frankly, for me, makes the act cooking more enjoyable and less of a dry, impersonal exam.

I felt like a ‘bad fan’ for not purchasing Simply Nigella until the beginning of this month, and as of yet it’s only been thumbed through, not cooked from, save for the obligatory maiden making of avocado toast.  I want to make panforte this holiday season after both buying one last year, and seeing a recipe by Chestnut and Truffles on the Facebook group Baking Boy Bloggers, but I knew Nigella had a recipe. So rather than choose between the two, I am going to make both. How could I shun Nigella after all these years, but at the same time, how could I not use a ‘legit’ bona fide Italian’s recipe and show support to a fellow food blogger?

So thank you Nigella. Thank you for inspiring me for the past fifteen years and showing me the sheer visceral pleasure that lies within even the most basic foods.

T.

 

Footnotes:

I bet anyone who reads my blog will think ‘oh look at this twat thinking he can cook when all he does is put up carby, calorific cakes and moan about clean eating. Bet he’s about 20 stone and a virgin LOL’. But you know what, drag me all you like. I put up recipes that I want to share with people, that I want people to cook. The whole point of starting this blog was to tell people about the foods I enjoy. I don’t expect to convert folk.

I can even give a reason for the recipes I’ve posted up until now – I’ve shared parkin because it’s something that’s still unknown in parts of the UK in an age where many of our own traditional foods are being lost despite Bake Off being the country’s hottest commodity; red wine cake because it was something so simple yet I’d never even considered; American fruitcake because despite the ridicule, it can be very good; the sole soup because I wanted to make a small stand against the shocking waste of pumpkins after Halloween; the quince pie because I think more should know about these curious tough yellow fruits…I could go on.

Anyway,

Peace out.

T.

 

 

As Nutty As An….: American Fruitcake

“As nutty as a fruitcake”, as the idiom goes. It’s a popular one, but I always wondered where it came from, as the most nuts you’d find in a fruit cake in Britain is the almonds atop a Dundee cake, or maybe the ground ones in a Christmas cake.  Turns out this comes from the United States, coined 80 years ago.

Fruit cake isn’t exclusively a British thing. Cakes with fruit in have been around for centuries, and appear in many different cultures. I mentioned the American cousin to the British Christmas cake in the recipe for the latter, and true to form, I am sharing with you the recipe I use, which I’ve lightly adapted from the original. This is authentic as it gets, as it comes from Betty;  (a home cook from Kentucky who can be found on Youtube and has her own site) via her sister Barbara.

So what’s so different about this? I hear you ask.

The American fruitcake is a long-standing holiday tradition. In 1913, across the US, cakes began to be available via mail-order. Some well-known American bakers of fruit cake include Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, and The Claxton Bakery in Claxton, Georgia. Both Collin Street and Claxton are Southern companies with access to cheap nuts, especially the pecan, and this in turn, in 1935, led to the creation of the expression “nutty as a fruitcake”.

Unlike our version, the fruitcake has long been ridiculed in American popular culture. Johnny Carson famously joked that there is only one in the world, passed from family to family.

The main difference between the American fruitcake, and the traditional Christmas cake, apart from the lack of marzipan and fondant atop, is the fruit itself. Whilst ours (and many others around the world) use dried fruits, the American version is stuffed with candied, or glacé fruit. And not just that, artifically-coloured ones. Think those bright red and green cherries you can buy.

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American fruitcakes. Colourful, huh? Certainly festive.
American fruitcakes. Colourful, huh? Certainly festive.

As you can see, very different! I happen to think they’re really pretty. The glacé fruit inside look like jewels, especially when they’re chopped and put atop the cakes for decoration. They’re perhaps more fruit, than cake!

It’s difficult to say as a Brit with a pash for all things American why it’s become such a national joke, but I’m pretty sure the blame, as always, starts with horrid mass-produced versions which are inferior to a proper home-made one.   I’ve researched these long and hard – the trashy holds dear to me – and can certainly sympathise with fruitcake haters. Some store-bought ones use candied TURNIP (no doubt cheaper than cherries) to bulk them out, whilst others are bulked with the bitter citron (which I like but can see why many wouldn’t, I was a candied peel phobe for many years). And indeed Betty, creator of this recipe, slates the mass-produced ones, saying they’re inedibly chewy and said that the ‘fruit’ barely qualifies as such.

‘Fruitcake tosses’ are a popular holiday game to get rid of unwanted ones, and it is also often the standard gift for a relation you don’t like very much; or the one you ‘regift’. Or use as a doorstop.

The mail-order cake still exists, one particular example is made by the monks of Trappist Abbey, Oregon, and these for the most part are superior in quality to the mass-produced crap – my late paternal grandfather was a long-term customer of Collin Street Bakery, who do deliver to the UK.

After reading about the American fruitcake in December 2013, I was so charmed by their colourful appearance I tried to make a spin using a bara brith recipe. Went OK but got lost in the Christmas baking shuffle that year. I’ve also made ‘fruitcake scones’ (cherry scones using tri-colour cherries) with some success. But last year, I decided in addition to the trad Brit Christmas cake, I was going to go Stateside too (which was another reason for making a smaller one!). And I discovered, not only do I love the look, but also the taste. I’d be a bad American.

This recipe is as good ol’ Deep South as it gets and Betty’s video is charming (and Betty herself is achingly glamourous, a real Kentucky gal). it’s a very easy recipe if you don’t mind a bit of chopping.

If you have a large bundt pan or tube pan, make it in one, or use two 2lb loaf tins as I do. If you find pecans (there is a lot but remember this originates from the Deep South where they’re local produce) too costly, use walnuts instead.

This is cooked long and slow so set aside a half day for this. Same as you would a Christmas cake.

Finally, I absolutely INSIST no ‘natural colour’ glacé cherries please! You can easily find the multicoloured, artificial red, gold and green ones online or on wholefood market stalls at this time of year! For the mixed fruits, use whatever you can find that won’t break the bank (you may not want that fancy box of French glacé fruit from Lakeland here!). Those red pears and angelica would be ideal, as well as the gold cherries. If however you don;’t want to spend too much, just replace with another 8oz of chopped dates. The original recipe from Betty was in fact 1lb dates, I just replaced half this amount with the extra chopped glacé fruits to make it mine because I’d bought other fruits such as candied pears, peach halves, melon, kiwi and angelica, and I thought that 1lb of cherries and pineapple wasn’t enough! Actually, I just wanted more coloured bits to make it even gaudier (go hard or go home!). Do as you wish.

Holiday Fruitcake

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8oz dates, chopped

4oz green glacé cherries, halved

4oz red glacé cherries, halved (not ‘natural colour’!)

4oz glacé pineapple rings, cut into chunks

8oz mixed glacé fruits (available online from various sources – Amazon is good, or from wholefoods stalls) e.g red pears, gold cherries, angelica, melon, whatever you can find. Candied peel would be good, or just use another 8oz of dates.

1lb pecans, chopped in the processor. (or walnuts)

1 US cup caster sugar

1 US cup self-raising flour

4 large eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp ground nutmeg

Optional:

Some more coloured cherries, halved

Handful or two pecans

Bourbon whiskey

  1. Preheat oven to 130 degrees Celsius (250 Fahrenheit). Grease two 2lb loaf tins and line with a sheet of greaseproof that comes out over the sides for easy lifting out later.
  2. Chop dates if not using ready-chopped,  halve cherries and cut pineapple into chunks. Chop up the mixed candied fruit (or whatever you’re using e.g extra dates, peel, cherries etc) into small, even-ish pieces. Blitz pecans in a processor or bash in a freezer bag with rolling pin.
  3. Place all fruit and nuts into a large mixing bowl.
  4. In a separate bowl, whisk flour, nutmeg and sugar to combine and add to fruit.
  5. Beat eggs with the vanilla in another bowl and add to dry ingredients and fruit before mixing well to just combine.. This is a heavy mixture as the eggs are the only liquid. It is easier to just roll your sleeves up and use your hands – it will come together fairly quickly.
  6. Divide mixture between the loaf pans, or a large tube pan if you have one, and use a spoon to compact it down as hard as you can. You don’t want any air bubbles.
  7. This is an option – you don’t have to – decorate as I have with more halved cherries and pecans before baking, as this welds them to the top and the low heat ensures the sugary fruit won’t catch.
  8. Bake in the oven for 1 and a half hours -1 hour 45 minutes (ovens vary); if using a big tube pan, it may take up to and over 2 hours -until firm and a tester comes out clean – you will find a small bit of stickiness on it because of the high amount of syrupy glacé fruit in- and the top springs back upon light pressure.
  9. Place tins on a wire rack and cool COMPLETELY. They will harden up more as they cool.
  10. Once completely cool, loosen ends with a pallet knife and gently lift out using the surplus parchment. Peel it away.
  11. If using straight away, slice thinly with a serrated knife and serve. If not, pierce top a few times and feed with a few spoonfuls approx of bourbon whiskey. Then, soak some muslin in bourbon and wrap around cake before wrapping again in foil and storing in a cool dark place. Remember to check periodically and refresh the muslin as this helps preserve the cake.

Stockists for glacé fruit:

Country products

Amazon

 

Stir-Up Sunday: Traditional Christmas Cake.

In keeping with the seasonal theme to the blog, I am publishing my recipe for Christmas cake, that I’ve used every year since 2010. I inherited it from my mother.

Stir Up Sunday is the 3rd Sunday of November, the day you’d traditionally make your Christmas pudding or Christmas cake. Not everyone abides by this; some make their puds in January, some make their cakes in August – everyone’s got their own traditions. I make my Christmas cake on this day and have done every year thus far.

The Christmas cake is a curious thing. An extra-rich take on the traditional British fruit cake (a fruitcake, one word, is something quite different, an American ‘tradition’ and another recipe I intend on publishing!), it is heady in alcohol and often left to mature, to be ‘fed’ with booze weekly/monthly until Christmas. It is usually topped with marzipan and fondant icing to depict a snowy scene, or left minimalist, rather like a boutique hatbox. Some prefer to top it with chopped glacé fruits and nuts rather like a gemstone jigsaw (and it does look strikingly pretty as a centrepiece).

It’s had a bit of a bad rep – many people don’t like it (a bit like its gaudy American cousin) and indeed I wouldn;t touch any cake/bun with fruit in as a child. The negative stereotype of this cake is an inedible, dessicated slab, full of wrinkled currants and icing so hard it’d break your teeth (Nigella summed this up on her Christmas Kitchen series and I happen to agree 100%!) – think bad wedding cake. However a good Christmas cake is rich, moist, boozy and decadent. Some even like theirs with a sharp cheese.

Whatever your views, most homes shouldn’t be without one, even as a centrepiece – you may not have room on Christmas Day but in the following depressing weeks of January, it’s a reassuring warm treat with a brew and you don;’t have to cut a whacking great slice.

Be warned, this recipe makes a MONSTER of a cake. Last Christmas, after ending up chucking the leftovers in previous years when even I couldn’t face it anymore,  I halved it for our 4-person household and it was a perfect size. This is the one shown in the photos  – the recipe, halved. The time the blog went live, I hadn’t made this year’s yet! Plus, you could use it to make 2 smaller cakes or if you do entertain a crowd this festive season, feel free to make the full recipe.

I do recommend halving it for a smaller household but it’s entirely up to you!

Christmas Cake

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12oz plain flour

6 eggs, beaten with 1 tbsp milk

4oz ground almonds

1tsp mixed spice

grated nutmeg (to taste)

1tsp ground cinnamon

8oz chopped dates (for candied-peel phobes. Replace with peel if you like, or even prunes for extra moisture)

8oz sultanas

8oz raisins

4oz chopped glacé cherries

Brandy (3tbsp approx but again, to taste)

Sherry

8oz margarine (or butter if you wish, I prefer Stork in all my cakes)

8oz dark brown soft sugar

1tbsp black tracle

Grated zest 1 orange

  1. Soak fruit in brandy and sherry for 1 hour at least, overnight preferable.
  2. Prepare cake tin (s) – grease and line with parchment paper, on both the bottom and the sides – make sure your papers around the sides are about 2/3 the height of the tin over to stop cake burning.
  3. Preheat oven to 180 degrees C.
  4. In one bowl, mix dry ingredients
  5. In another, cream margarine and sugar, and gradually beat in eggs. It may curdle – unlike a sponge, a fruit cake is dense so don’t worry too much.
  6. Add fruit, treacle and citrus zest. Make a wish.
  7. Pour batter into prepared cake tin and smooth top.
  8. Bake for 1 hour at 180. Afterwards, reduce to 150 and bake for 2-3 hours (all depends on size of tin and ovens do vary). Check periodically – cover top of cake with foil if browning too quick. Cake will be done when a tester comes out clean.
  9. Cool in tin(s) for 10-15 minutes before carefully removing and finishing on a wire rack. Or cool completely on rack in tin(s).
  10. When completely cool, pierce several times witha  skewer and pour over a few tablespoons of brandy/sherry/liquor of choice – ginger wine is another great option, as well as any spiced European liqueurs such as Becherovka if you have them; hell if you have Jagermeister, you could splash a little of that over. Let it soak in, and then wrap tightly in tinfoil and store in an airtight container. Unwrap and re-feed once a week/however often you feel like it until a few days before Christmas.
  11. Cover in marzipan (24 hours before icing preferable) and ice as you wish.  I now make my own marzipan and fondant icing to do this – will put up recipes for both in a few weeks. Or forego this and cover with fruit and nuts, stuck with apricot jam and glazed. Your cake, do what you want.

    Alternatively, if you miss Stir-Up Sunday and have left it until the last minute,then you could always make a boiled cake (sounds horrid but honestly, it just speeds up the long soaking process!). In which case, follow these steps:

  12. Place fruit, alcohol, margarine, sugar, treacle, spices and citrus zest into a saucepan big enough, and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes and then remove from the heat. Leave for half an hour.
  13. When  the half hour is up, mix together almonds and flour, and add mixture to these along with your beaten eggs, and proceed to bake in prepared tin (s) as you would for the normal recipe. It still has the long life you’d expect a fruit cake to have and feed as normal depending how much time you have!

Culinary Chatter: Food-Shaming in the name of ‘wellness’ and feigned gluten allergies.

“guilt tastes nasty – you gotta unlearn the practice of seasoning your food w it” – Ruby Tandoh, 2013 GBBO finalist, cookbook author, and Guardian food writer, July 2015

How about we keep calm and eat SENSIBLY?
How about we keep calm and eat SENSIBLY?

I thought I’d pick a juicy (see what I did there?) topic to kick off my ‘culinary chatter’ subsection of this blog. But you know what, I don’t care.

Save for the pumpkin soup I posted for Halloween, all my recipes posted so far have been cake. Glorious fat, carb and sugar-laden cakes. It would have the likes of Deliciously Ella, Calgary Avosino and Lowri Turner (former daytime TV presenter, now a ‘nutritionist’) keel over in horror.

GOOD.

This modern culture of food shaming needs to stop now.

Even as a person who has been interested in food and cooking since childhood, I have had a complicated relationship with it. No, I wasn’t the fat kid larded up on daily McDonalds and revolting 6-for-60p value sausage rolls, and nor was I raised on a strictly wholesome, wholemeal diet either. But growing up the Nineties, the real start of the low-fat fever and healthy food revolution left an indelible mark.

“You MUST eat this, it’s HEALTHY FOR YOU.”

“You CAN’T HAVE THAT, it’ll rot your teeth.”

Were drummed into us in the decade that gave us curtain hair, the PlayStation and Friends. I remember being disciplined by a supply teacher and reviled by classmates in Year 1 for colouring in an ice-cream on a worksheet – the task was colour in healthy foods.

So naturally I hated having to eat fruit and vegetables, as many kids often do. Oh sure, I could chow down apples, bananas, oranges, strawberries et al, but obviously, ‘EAT YOUR GREENS’. Nope. And this is where this problem is rooted. If we force children to eat stuff because it’s ‘GOOD FOR YOU’ then naturally, they won’t like it and go for the Wham bar instead. I can’t speak for all children though, but I have heard occasions where kids who haven’t had the healthy eating regime drummed into their skulls will eat the ‘good’ stuff without so much as a downturned trembling lip.

But I digress.

I was one of those kids who was blessed with ‘hollow legs’ whereas the rest of my family were larger. Sometimes it just happens that way. We didn’t spend the day hoovering up cream cakes and Big Macs. We were fed 3 meals a day. Many home-cooked. But of course, underactive thyroids, etc, don’t exist in the mind of the fiercest fat shamers. ALL FAT PEOPLE ARE FAT BECAUSE THEY’RE LAZY AND EAT ALL DAY WHILST SAT ON THEIR JACKSIES and don’t you forget it. Whilst I won’t bore you all with my own weight struggles, needless to say my legs weren’t hollow forever and by 17, whoof. I looked like a dinghy with cheap Specsavers glasses and grubby pair of tracksuit bottoms.  And how did I get fat? Read the capitalized statement.

Attack of the killer whale? No, it's me in 2007. Admittdly standing with two very slim people from mu Uni halls didn't help but this is the best Facebook had to offer that truly illustrated my bulk.
Attack of the killer whale? Why are they smiling when they’re about to be crushed by a large heavy creature?! No, it’s me in 2007. Admittdly standing with two very slim people from mu Uni halls didn’t help but this is the best Facebook had to offer that truly illustrated my bulk.

I made myself that way. And it wasn’t even enjoyment of good food! It was sheer greed and novelty of being able to leave the school site as a sixth former. Excess. But anyway, I managed to shift 3 stone between the ages of 19 and 20, and for the subsequent six years, kept the majority off.

slim pic 09 leannes
January 2009. 3 stone lighter. Now with a reason to smile.

In June this year though, I have to admit, I’d let myself go a touch.

June 2015, Whoops, heading back to chubstertown there, buddy..
June 2015, Whoops, heading back to chubstertown there, buddy..

And below is me now. May not be Mr Gay UK or have the phone ringing from underwear companies yet but I don’t think I done too bad in 5 months.

November 2015. Same garment for consistency.
November 2015. Same garment for consistency.

Did I get this way by living off green juices, quinoa, and banning wheat from my life? Nope. I cut out plastic Chorleywood bread, saving it for weekends (because I’m sorry, nobody will ever convince me toast and Marmite isn’t the breakfast of champions, soz. I have my crappy vices.) and other un-necessary junk food. I couldn’t rely on an active job alone anymore. I followed a plan based upon the Slimming World method, which essentially, is everything in moderation (the syn system is essentially allowing oneself a treat every now and then). I refused to ban any food group. I still eat sugar (only at weekends, have Splenda for hot drinks during the week, though a post-shift hot chocolate is a necessary evil before bed) and always keep it in for baking. Frankly, I haven’t bought a ready meal since Blair ran the country so the ‘hidden sugar and salt’ moral panic has never really applied to my adult life. I keep butter in for baking. Pasta, providing you don’t smother it in salty, fatty ectoplasm from a jar, is fine on Slimming World as it is a grain. All about being sensible.

But I did buy a spiralizer. Which I’ve used twice, I think..

My point being, I wanted to lose a good two stone and look good in a set of gay briefs. But still ENJOY food, not seeing it as a necessary evil. Obviously a healthier but still balanced diet could only shed so much (hey, 1 stone and a thankfully active night job at 10k plus steps a shift wasn’t too shabby) so the gym came calling. I go 3 times a week. And I still bake cakes, will eat out, and occasionally order in… and guess what, I still drink too. Soz Lowri, some of us can enjoy food and lose weight.

But enough of my Big Fat Story. Let’s talk the crux. Wellness and food shaming.

“Do you KNOW how many CALORIES are in that?!”

“Sorry, I can’t come to dinner for your birthday tonight, I’m on this diet, and worried about going over my calories for the day.”

“OH MY GOD! I can’t possibly go to this restaurant! There’s no calories printed on the menu!”

“You know, you should eat a bit cleaner.”

“I can’t eat that, it’s got gluten in.”
“Are you a coeliac?””
“No I just think it’s bad for you.”

YAWN.

Coeliac’s disease, for those who do suffer an intolerance to the dreaded wheat protein, is a horrible thing to have. And doesn’t affect as many as you’d think, or so I’ve read. But this is a fine line to tread so I won’t make such sweeping statements. Look up legitimate medical research, not some angry blogger’s rants please.

Clean eating has taken the world by storm. Green juice, chia seed pudding (made with non-dairy milk please), avocado toast (on GF bread, natch), quinoa, salads constantly. We’ve come a long way since 2004 when known poo-prodder and questionable doctor Gillian McKeith first began to force the ancient Incan pseudocereal upon us when fat-shaming people with low self-esteem with school dining-tables of chips and burgers on her series You Are What You Eat.

It has made celebrities of authors/online personalities like Deliciously Ella, Madeline Shaw (British Instagram personality), and Calgary Avosino (a glamorous, blonde American waif whose saccharine, holier-than-though piece on healthy Christmas dinner alternatives in The Sunday Times made me retch) who’ve advocated this fabulous new key to happiness.

Which I’m sure is all well and dandy – if you’re the daughter of the Sainsbury’s dynasty or just rich and privileged in general and can afford to eat this way, but that’s none of my business *sips tea with DAIRY skimmed milk in* – these ingredients du jour like quinoa and chia seeds are not exactly cheap. Well they can be if you look hard enough for somewhere that hasn’t hiked the price up twentyfold like most ‘new superfoods’ do.

Nigella Lawson, whom I have idolised without shame since the age of 12, takes exactly the same approach to this trend as I do – she equates food guilt with puritanism. Nobody should be made to feel guilty about what they choose to eat. I may not approve of some parents feeding their children ready meals and jars of Dolmio but I sure as hell am not going to frogmarch over and lecture them. Nigella’s new book and TV series does use some of the ‘clean-eating’ favourites (avocado toast, chia seed breakfast bars made with medjool dates, goji berries and other hot-in-LA goodies) but proudly stated on the television series that she was ‘not going to go into fine detail about the supposed health benefits’. Brilliant shade thrown as always by Lawson at her critics.

Lowri Turner, former daytime TV presenter and the not-so-famous sister of Anthea, has now taken on a new role as nutritionist. She had a puff piece in a recent Sunday newspaper supplement, and fair play to her for finally winning her weight battles. If you used to be big, then it’s a great feeling to finally be in control, I can relate completely.

But it was the other things she said that actually spawned the first seeds of this blog in my mind. Her advice, amongst the usual ‘reject carbs and dairy’ snore, was that ‘food is for hunger, not to be taken pleasure in’. She suggests rejecting meals out with friends to stick to your calorie intake as well. Excuse me? So if I dare to enjoy my food, I’ll instantly get fat? Or if my friends or family wanted to dine out as a celebration I have to say no; lest I balloon overnight? Screw you! I am proof you can be a foodie and lose weight.

Is ‘everything in moderation’ too basic for folk these days? Is it an archaic belief?  The mind boggles.

Which brings me to the final, click-bait section of the headline and title. Feigned allergies to gluten. It has become almost customary to reject wheat, a staple food of virtually the entire world for millenia. There are so many claims it is bad for you, it’ll make you fat, make you ill, blah blah blah.

Some people are medically allergic to gluten. Coeliac disease. And that’s non-disputable. They cannot consume it as it will make them sick.

But there’s been a massive growth in people who have stopped eating it, purely because it’s ‘bad for you’ and makes you bloated/fat, whatever. Not because it will cause them to be ill. And this is the ‘feigned allergies’ of the title.

Since when?

Italy still marches on pasta and has done for centuries. Hell, I still eat it, despite it being the dreaded C-word. Not cancer. CARBS.

QUELLE HORREUR!!!

And I’m sure this anti-gluten trend is just an evolution of the long-running fear of the carb.

Weighing out pasta before you cook it is an easy answer to not overdoing it…and making your own sauces too. You know exactly what went in. And pasta is meant to be dressed like a salad, not drowned in a sugary, salty, fatty, chemical pre-made sauce. A pasta sauce is not a hard or expensive thing to make from scratch.

Another staple food that’s come to be feared is white rice. The biggest continent, Asia, virtually lives off the stuff. The vast majority of the populations of Japan, China, India, and Thailand, all eat white rice with a plethora of their meals. Do any of those nations have obesity problems? How often do you see an obese Chinese, Japanese, Thai or Indian person?

Bread is often called the ‘staff of life’! The most basic form of sustenance there is. How now is it suddenly bad for you? Please tell me Madeline Shaw. Please tell me Deliciously Ella. I’d love to know.

If people are eating cheap, mass-produced white bread for every meal and snacks in between, I can understand. I can’t touch tiger loaves and supermarket baguettes because the horrible slumps I suffer after. But it’s probably the extra rubbish put in the loaves with the flour, water, salt and yeast that’s the problem.  I still bake bread. And enjoy it at the weekends, even the aforementioned sliced pap. Moderation.

Moderation, is the key, people.

Remember, there are some people out there, many of them young families, who can barely afford to eat and don’t have the luxury of choosing to  ‘eat clean’ but still can maintain a balanced diet. Dr Jack Monroe proved that, even at rock bottom, a bit of smart-shopping and kitchen creativity meant that you (and your family) can eat reasonably well even on a severely limited budget. Monroe is an inspiration to many, including myself.

Eat what you bloody well like, just be sensible and judicious. And eat when you’re hungry, but take pleasure in doing so. Nobody should be made to feel ashamed of what they’re eating. Ever. Just be thankful you CAN eat. If you’ve had a bad day, treat yourself. Nobody’s going to come and throw you in the police cells for picking up that bar of Dairy Milk. You’re out with friends whom you’ve not seen for a while. Go ahead and enjoy a drink and a naughty meal with them. You’re allowed.

We live in an age with information at our fingertips 24/7 so you can always look it up if you’re unsure if something’s bad or good for you. And if you do think you’re allergic to gluten, for God’s sake, go and get medically tested. Don’t just assume you are because some wealthy, slim, beautiful food blogger said gluten is bad for you.

Peace out.

T.

It’s A Wonderful Day For Pie: Quince Crumble Pie

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness! I love autumn, as you probably can tell. Despite our insatiable desire to have all fruit and veg, all year round, there are some that still only appear strictly in season. Asparagus and gooseberries in early summer; plums in August; Seville oranges in January….and late October/early November, following the hit of orange from pumpkin season, the quinces arrive. You may be lucky and have a tree in your garden, in which case, I’m jealous!

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Now because they’re so seasonal and not always available in every supermarket, some may have not heard of them. They’re from the same family as apples and pears, and indeed look like big ,yellow, rather ugly , blotchy, pears. They do give off a really floral perfumed aroma when ripe. And you can’t eat them raw (you can, but they’re hard, astringent and sour, and need to be ‘bletted’ – softened by frost and practically rotted in order to do so), which I think puts people off them. They do however, stew up a treat, and they’re used in all sorts of ways on the continent and in Asia. Most common use here is being made into jelly/clear jam to go with roasts, or as membrillo paste, that sweet red block you can buy off the cheese counter.

So anyway, let’s talk about this recipe. I inherited this from my mother two years ago, who in turn obtained it from one of her neighbours, and it’s sat in my laptop as one of those ‘may give it a go’ things. After spotting some locally grown quinces on the market a few days ago, I grabbed some, deciding now it was time to make it, and share with folk the joys of these most autumnal of fruits.

This recipe is certainly one for the season – pick a cold, wet day where you have nothing on, and don’t mind pottering about the kitchen as it does take up a bit of time. But it’s not the most ‘hands on’ – never mistake time-consuming with difficult, please! You have to stew the quinces for an hour – yes but they just bubble away gaily on the hob and you can find something else to do. Plus the pastry and puréed quinces can be done ahead of time if you’re planning to serve it to guests.

Turns out the source of this recipe was actually closer than I thought….BBC Good Food published it in 2011. D’oh. It’s in my own words and written up from my experience of making it.

Anyway, enough of me rabbiting on, here’s the recipe:

Quince Crumble Pie

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For the Quince Puree:

1kg/2lb Quinces, cored & roughly chopped
175g/6oz Caster Sugar
Zest & juice of half a Lemon
1tsp Ground Cinnamon
2 tbsp  Cornflour

For the Pastry

140g/5oz butter diced
200g/7oz plain flour
50g/2oz Ground Almonds
75g/2 half oz Caster Sugar
Zest of 1 Lemon
1 egg plus 1 egg yolk

For the Crumble Topping:

100g/4oz plain Flour
75g/2.5oz of rolled Oats
75g/2.5oz Caster Sugar
140g/5oz butter, diced

To make the quince puree:

  1. Place chopped quinces in a large pan with  350ml water, cover with a lid & simmer for 1 hour or until the quinces  change colour & are pulpy.
  2. Remove from heat & allow to cool slightly, then blitz with a blender until smooth. You can rub it through a sieve if you want, but I don’t think it’s necessary, especially if you’ve got a good blender.
  3. Put the purée into a clean pan & add the sugar, lemon zest & juice, and cinnamon. Cook puree until it is reduced by about a third, then slake the cornflour with with a little water & stir into puree until it is thick. Remove from heat & allow to cool.

To make pastry and assemble the pie:

  1. In a bowl by hand, or in a processor or stand mixer, rub the butter in to the flour & almonds until it resembles damp sand. Add the sugar & lemon zest and then the egg + egg yolk, mixing until it coheres to a dough. Wrap in cling & chill for 20-30 mins in the fridge. Be warned, this is a VERY sticky dough! Do not skip the chilling.
  2. Press dough (the original recipe said roll out on a floured surface but it STICKS LIKE HELL so I had to push it straight into the tin with my hands) into a 22cm tart tin. Chill it in the fridge for a further 15 mins. Preheat oven to 160C/140 fan/gas 3.
  3. Remove from fridge and then blind bake for 20 minutes. Take out the
    parchment paper & baking beans, stab a few times with a fork, and cook for a further 15 minutes,  until the base is biscuity. Remove from oven & allow to cool slightly.
  4. While base is finishing off in the oven, make the crumble topping. Mix flour, oats & sugar in a bowl with a pinch of salt, then rub in the butter until you have an uneven crumbly mix.
  5. Once base is ready, turn heat up to 180C/160 fan/Gas mark 4.
  6. To assemble the tart; .pour the cooled, rust-hued quince puree in to the cooked tart shell so it comes just below the top, and then sprinkle over the crumble & bake for 25-30 mins or until golden & the quince is bubbling around the edge. Be careful the crust doesn’t darken too much.
  7. You can serve warm with custard, but I preferred to leave to cool and serve with a splash of cream.

 

Restaurant Review: Bill’s Cambridge Restaurant

Address: 34-35 Green St, Cambridge CB2 3JX

Date of visit: 04 November 2015, 16:50pm

As part of this blog I will be reviewing Cambridge eateries, preferably not the big chains though. Yesterday I had to head into town to visit the Apple store for some work on my phone, and rather than face the rush hour traffic, decided to have an early supper. We settle on Bill’s, as the OH had been there before and it just looked appealing, not too informal and not the default chain choice (though I believe they are a small chain).

Hard to pin down what the place is, I’ve summarised it as an Italian deli-cum-gastropub with cocktail bar. Purely based upon the ambience inside – we’re talking bijou wood panelling, Italian grocery containers as ornaments, lots of chalkboards, including three with recipes written on – a lovely touch. Overall a very pleasant atmosphere.

Wasn’t especially busy, and we were served immediately by a smiling waitress. Waiting for orders to be taken wasn’t long at all, and we didn’t have to ask for a water jug.

The menu itself was not too big (which as we all know is often a bad sign – think about it; a small pub that has a fifteen page menu? You may as well have bought a ready meal), with a few appealing choices but mostly classic gastropub fare. Fish and chips, burgers, mac and cheese.

As I was driving, decided not to check out the cocktail menu but instead went for their pink lemonade, which, when it arrived, was sold under Bills’ own label. According to the bottle (a charming glass affair not a plastic vending machine special), it was made for them by a small artisan French producer. On the way out, I noted 750ml size bottles available to buy to take home. May do so upon next visit as it was a nice drink. It was garnished with a strawberry in the glass.

Bill's Pink Lemonade, also available for purchase and have at home
Bill’s Pink Lemonade, also available for purchase and have at home

We chose the butcher’s Special mezze to start as it was a shared one (they also offer a veggie version). On offer was hummus, baba ghanoush, marinated olives, pork sausages, chicken kebabs and a sesame-coated meat
kebab. Plus tortilla chips and flatbread. Sounds like a gut buster and a decent if random mix. It arrived fairly quickly, and pleasingly was not overwhelmingly loaded. Perfectly sized if I’m honest.

One chicken skewer each, the sausages were small two-bite affairs on sticks, and the flatbread was about the size of a large pita. Only small criticsim was perhaps bigger dip bowls? Tortilla chips were clearly home made and not from the catering-size bag of knock-off Doritos; chicken skewers were tender and heady with coriander.

The baba ghanoush was to die for. Proper olives too, we’re talking kalamata and those almost avocado-creamy Nocellara or Sicilian ones, not aged, wrinkled bullets straight from the ambient brine jar. They were stone-in though, so watch out.

Mezze - whilst a bit fusion, all the components were high quality and all tasted home made.
Mezze – whilst a bit fusion, all the components were high quality and all tasted home made.

Reasonably short wait for mains – arrived before we finished the starter. But this was more us dragging it out to not have to leave too soon!

I went for the Duck pie. Again, nicely sized, came in the ovular dish you’d expect a pub lasagne or shepherd’s pie to arrive in. I guessed from the menu that it wasn’t going to be pastry, and I was pleasantly surprised. Beneath
the herbed creamy mash topping lurked meltingly soft meat with chewy pearl barley. It was served with some pickled cabbage, which cut through the richness a but and a small jug of gravy which you could add yourself. And it tasted like real gravy, not Bisto. Toby had buttermilk chicken, which was a cutlet served in a bun with sweet potato fries. Sadly I wasn’t resourceful enough to taste it for reviewing purposes but he left the top of the bun so it can’t have been bad!

bills 3

We fore-went dessert and paid. For two, it came to £49.83 including the service charge which I felt was reasonable for Cambridge and what was on the whole, good, honest food. Bill’s is a definite addition to the ‘will return’ list.

Overall, Bill’s is worth a visit. Perhaps the only real problem is that they seem to be trying to be everything. The decor and artisan goods for sale gave it the feel of an Italian delicatessen; whilst the cocktail bar obviously is there to attract the hip young professionals…the menu is a bit too globe-trotting for my taste – it has a bit of an identity crisis, listing burgers and BBQ ribs alongside English pub fare with a bit of the Middle East thrown in.
Although I enjoyed the started and felt it was a nice selection, I wouldn’t call it a true mezze – sharing platter would have done fine. But that’s just me being pernickety as much of the components of the stater WAS the kind served in the Levant.

Food: 10/10
Service: 10/10
Price: 8/10
Ambience: 7/10

I liked:
-Decent price
-Very good quality food, nothing felt like it was out of a Booker’s packet.
-Eclectic menu
-Nice ambience
-Friendly wait staff
-Some lovely products for sale
-Other cute details; recipes on chalkboards etc.

I didn’t like:
– Aforementioned identity crisis. Is it a mezze bar? A British gastropub? Italian deli? Cocktail bar? Stange mix of cuisines on menu – Middle-eastern/BBQ/British pub classics.