I’m scarcely believing I’m writing this down, but I shall never forget All Hallow’s Eve 2017.
They say you should never meet your heroes. And that day I met mine.
I’ve gushed shamelessly over Nigella Lawson and how she has been the reason I’ve sustained an interest in cooking and food writing before, but I honestly never thought I would get to meet her, let alone have a small conversation with her without becoming tongue-tied or saying something hideously embarrassing. She was giving a talk about her newest book At My Table, and audience members were invited afterwards to the microphone to ask her questions or simply get a chance to tell her a story.
I don’t want to pontificate too much with the details of my day, such as my poor meal planning resulting in only having time to cook supper but not actually EAT it – incidentally on the menu that night was the Chicken, Leek and Pea Traybake from At My Table, which already seems to be a very popular recipe from that book as it featured in the premiere of the new TV series (I abandoned Bake Off in September after the technicals got too stupid and relied on specialist equipment *cough* waffle cone machines *cough*). And I chose to travel by train as it worked out faster than driving to Ely at that time of night. So a snatched cold cheap mince pasty and a boost bar from the Tesco adjacent to Ely station were all that I was sustaining myself with for a night with Nigella. Not the best start.
I’d promised myself that every meal on that day was to be from At My Table…breakfast was the Turkish Eggs, albeit without the key ingredient of Aleppo pepper (I must order some soon) instead with paprika and chilli flakes; lunch was the pasta with anchovies, tomatoes and mascarpone; and dinner the aforementioned traybake with apple gingerjack for dessert….it almost worked out – I just reheated a large portion of traybake when I arrived home that night and I still have some of the gingerjack left over. But anyway, I digress.
Thankfully I managed to not fall asleep during what was a very engaging talk (I’d worked a night shift Monday night and had stayed up all day owing to a doctors’ appointment at 1:30); though admittedly I was focusing more on the fact that I WAS IN THE SAME ROOM AS NIGELLA at times…and as soon as Nigella announced she wanted to hear from us…I made a beeline to join the small throng of fans.
I had to really bite my tongue and hold my side-eyes when the first person to speak, an American woman, decided to criticise Nigella for how much salt she uses in her cooking (yes, I know. Some people). Nigella’s response was perfectly gregarious yet meticulously tore apart this ridiculous criticism – salt is always to taste and most with half a brain should know that. The others, including a very glamorously-vintage-attired food writer, thankfully had much more interesting things to ask and say. I was panicking as the line shrunk – had I thought this through and what the HELL should I ask her? I’m not as well read as I should be….and I really could not think of an original question regarding food….at last…heart racing…I gingerly looked across the ornate cathedral aisle at the lady whom I’ve idolised, been inspired and captivated by since the age of 12; fiercely defended against yawnsome detractors….tweeted frequently…and all in all, the main reason I’m even in this game….and introduced myself as the guy who cooked her late sister Thomasina’s favourite food (hear more about it in this interview and trust me, you should try it. It’s a killer breakfast, especially if you, like me have a severe umami tooth)
I had indeed made this two weeks prior and tweeted it to Nigella…who replied that it moved her (and made my entire weekend in the process). Her spoken response to me couldn’t have been better….I did feel a bit of an idiot though…like I’d used this time to inflate my own ego and get that prized ‘recognition’. I now understand why meeting a public figure means so much to folk…I wanted to tell Nigella without being creepy or cliched just how much she means to me and the sheer impact she has had on my life, and cooking this dish that was deeply personal to her own past was in my mind, the best way of thanking her….much like my fervently making of her chutney recipes in 2013 when the entire world seemed fiercely determined to demonise her. And because this combination of taromasalata, crispy bacon and sharp scallions on a soft doughy pitta bread is KILLER. It may not be gourmet or refined but boy does it taste good. I’d even recommend it as a hangover cure.
Then came the long glacial queue to get my book signed. All the time I was quivering and shying up. I wanted to get in one final chat with her as I may not ever get the chance to again. I was one of the tail end of the line and I was worrying about getting the last train from Ely but I knew if I left too soon, I’d always regret it. It was time. I handed my cracked rose gold iPhone 7 to a very friendly lady who was taking on photography duties for the fans and shuffled over to the radiant Ms Lawson (who incidentally is absolutely exquisite in person and every bit as warm as you think). She thanked me again and I knew that it was time to be the cliche and tell her just how much she means to me; that I first saw her on Bites in 2001 when I was 12…and how she’s the reason I’ve remained so interested in food and cooking. I also dropped what could be seen as a clanger by some and told her I was an aspiring food blogger and should she wish to, she could read it…and gave her the name of this blog.
I don’t look good in any of these, especially next to Nigella. But for once my vanity can fall by the wayside as I’m essentially in the presence of royalty.
“The cooking petrolhead? I will never forget that!”
Accompanied by that luminescent smile.
Well Nigella, I will NEVER forget meeting you. My life was made. And should you decide to read this insignificant blog updated with appalling irregularity….thank you. For everything.
Well we’ve reached the end of another Great British Summer, and we all know what that means? Yes. A tent is erected somewhere in rural Berkshire and 12 diverse, previously-unknown British people from all walks of life, become the most A-list celebrities in the country for the following 8 weeks.
Welcome, to the Great British Bake Off.
Many food bloggers will no doubt be cashing in on this epicly-successful baking competition, it is one of the most-watched programmes on the BBC and reinvigorated the career of Mary Berry. But rather than tell people what they already know about GBBO, I’m going to try something.
For those who’ve been living under a large rock the past few years, Bake Off is a contest – one elimination each week until a final 3 bakers remain. Each week has a theme – cakes, enriched doughs, bread, biscuits, gluten free etc, and the bakers have to tackle a signature challenge, where they produce their own spin on an established classic, a technical challenge where they must test their skills from a minimally-written recipe, and a show stopper where they can push themselves to the limit with presentation.
I thought that this series, I am going to take on EVERY technical challenge. No matter how tough they are, or how much I dislike Berry and Hollywood (sorry! Mrs Berry once made some shady remarks about Nigella Lawson’s weight and I find her rather twee tbh. Hollywood I think is just too arrogant. It’s just bread, mate.), I am going to attempt them. Though unlike the bakers, I will have access to the ‘full recipes’. People tell me I should apply, but my answer is always no – I’d fail the first technical!
So without further ado, let’s get into week one, which is always cake week (and tbh, the week I’d get eliminated) – I only started watching the series in 2013 (Ruby Tandoh’s series). This year’s cake technical broke the internet – as the bakers were instructed to bake 12 jaffa cakes – and Instagram got flooded with people’s own attempts at them. Recipe by Mary.
Jaffa cakes are a British national institution. Is it a cake or a biscuit? The debate actually went to court in the 1980s. Most British folk will know what one is (and I’ve not met anyone who DOESN’T like them. Or indeed anyone who can have just 1 out of a packet. It’s one of those ‘seal breaker’ bad snacks. Like Pringles.). It is essentially a flat disc of genoise (fatless, whisked) sponge cake, just like that used for trifle sponge fingers, topped with a disc of orange jelly and a layer of dark chocolate.
“So you’re just blogging Mary and Paul’s recipes? Why?” I hear you ask.
Not quite – I’m merely blogging how each challenge went for me.
Ingredients list seemed straightforward enough – 3 large eggs, 50g castor sugar, 50g self raising flour (just 50g?!! WHAT?!), plus orange jelly cubes, dissolved in 150ml hot water, zest 1 orange and 180g dark chocolate.
Fortunately I own a stand mixer and am familiar with a genoise sponge, so the making of the cake itself shouldn’t be too tough. I beat the eggs…having to make the 3rd one a Medium egg as I’d run out of large – never mind….the folding, a kitchen job I LOATHE as much as sifting, was a bit of a mare (I’m one of those who is scared of eggs and egg whites when it comes to the Fear Of Knocking Out Precious Air) but was easy enough with my trusty rubber spatula (my preferred folding utensil). It actually made too much cake batter for the 12-hole-bun tin so I had 2 tartlet tins filled as well to make 2 roided-up jaffas. Baking took a good few minutes longer than the 7-9 minutes stated on the recipe, but for safety I did use the ‘fan’ temperature – I think fan ovens these days (ours is about 3 years old) are a closer match to electric than a few years ago perhaps? However, the sponges were baked…but were a bit of a struggle to get out at first. Yes I had greased all tins. Once out, the bases were left to cool. However, I noted how soft they stayed as opposed to crisp on the outside like a bought jaffa. Useless for dipping in tea, but as Miss Prim..sorry, Mary said…’we don’t do that in the South’, with a huge side order of (acted?) lemon-mouthed disapproval.
I decided to do the jelly in advance (I know, cheating but I work nights and was suffering a 24hr fever at the time), which thankfully set, but I used the wrong size dish and it came out a mite too thick, as well as being a struggle to turn out later on. So I painstakingly sliced each jelly round in half. Not perfection, but I figured they were going to be covered in chocolate anyway.
Now for the chocolate. Other people on my social medias seemed to have had a problem with this part – melting the jelly or not spreading. The recipe requests you melt it in advance so it cools and thickens, so being the paranoid mess I am, I had it melted whilst the cakes were still cooling in their tins. Luckily this seemed to do the trick and I managed to keep the tops reasonably level. Albeit messily. Managed somewhat of a criss cross on the tops with a fork. Now it was a case of waiting for them to set hard so I can taste them….
A little messy but they look like jaffa cakes!
I took all 12 of them into work, and came back with none (though I did eat 2 of them). Taste verdict – just like the McVitie’s original. Though the soft bases took a little from the experience in my opinion as it meant they weren’t dunkable!
Final verdict: Worth a go, for sure, however you can purchase supermarket own-brands (which don’t have much taste difference from the real McVitie’s ones) for as little as 50p a pack, so can this somewhat fiddly effort be jusitified? However, the cake bases are just 3 ingredients instead of the massive list of them usually seen on bought cake, and plus you get that smug feeling of ‘yeah I made jaffa cakes!’. The jelly though, is still out of a packet (personally I think the orange zest adds nothing but un-necessary stringiness as the flavour of the jelly is already highly concentrated without, so I would dispense with it next time), but the good thing is, you can get creative and change the jelly flavour if you want (The Polish are fans of cherry jaffa cakes for example). I suppose, you could also make proper orange jelly using juice and zest with gelatine sheets but personally, I think this is just extra effort for a minimal gain.
Watch this space when I take on Biscuit Week’s technical, Viennese Whirls! Stay tuned.
This time of year, the miserable January, where most of us are on the health kick and trying to stave off the cold by diving into salads when all we want are casseroles. I find myself craving dessert after dinner more when it’s the bleak midwinter, which is fine, but how do I satisfy a sweet tooth during the week (weekends are where such delights as crumbles and cake are allowed) and when just a piece of fruit won’t cut the mustard.
Fresh fruit is fabulous – don’t think I’ve gone so far against the hideous ‘wellness’ cult led by Paltrow and Avansino that I now even reject one of life’s simplest and healthiest puds -but I think, why limit yourself to just eating it out of hand? There is life beyond the smoothie. (and I say that as a massive smoothie fiend; so much so I think I ought to own shares in a banana plantation and be on the direct mailing list of Sainsbury’s Basics frozen mixed berries suppliers)
Of course, nothing beats the evocative saccharine burst of a ripe English strawberry in June, or the joy of sinking your teeth into the juicy flesh of a ripe pear, nectarine or peach, or the re-assuring crunch of an apple, but much of the fruit we buy over here, especially during January is out of season so therefore flown in from all four corners of the earth and mostly tasteless and so hard it could be used as war ammunition. We want to eat more fruit, we should eat more fruit (unless you’re one of the truly delusional ‘wellness/clean eating’ lot who seems to believe it’s bad for you now) and if all we have are Belgian pears, South African plums and Egyptian strawberries, we may as well find ways or restoring that ripe taste to make it feel more pleasurable and less of a punishment.
Of course, some fruit is only edible cooked – cranberries and quinces are just two such examples, along with British classics rhubarb and gooseberries – but cooking often will breathe new life into seemingly lifeless specimens. Poached pears are seen as a simple yet luxurious winter dessert in an age where many of us have forgotten what a truly ripe, fresh one tastes like. We all know what crumbles and pies can do for fruit so I don’t need to harp on too much there (but IMO you’ve never lived if you’ve not tried Nigella Lawson’s plum and amaretti crumble, or her strawberry, vanilla and almond one. Both bring summery ripeness to the hardest, sourest imported offenders.)
So I’ve been experimenting with new and exciting ways with fruit without adding needless calories for quite some time now. In the summer, I discovered the delight of grilled peaches (and underripe ones, which are usually what you find on the shelf anyway even in the summer months, work best here as they hold their shape and you wouldn’t know once they’ve seen the fierce heat of a hot grill or the smoking embers of a barbecue as the heat brings out their luscious sweet summeriness) at a friend’s barbecue and as a result got a bit hooked on them for a while, eating them several times a week.
I’m amazed how common fresh apricots seem to be nowadays – I love them dried but never have been convinced by eating them raw, finding them fibrous and bland. A few minutes under a hot grill will change all of that and they taste like apricots SHOULD – just like their bagged, dried brethren only juicier. Like their peach (or nectarine) relatives, they do not need any adornment save for perhaps some fat free Greek yoghurt or fromage frais and a light frosting of granulated sweetener.
This week I made an impromptu dessert with two apples and two plums out the fruit bowl, cutting them into medium-sized pieces (halving the plums) and roasting them with just a light sheen of oil and pinch of cinnamon at 200 degrees C for 11 minutes until lightly scorched. The apples, which weren’t that bad fresh (but one was quite shrivelled and past its best for eating raw), seemed to be sprung back into fragrant, perfumed life and tasted far better than Sainsbury’s pitiful Basics bagged offerings had any right to be. The oven once more had performed a miracle.
A semi-regular supper I cook is roasted pork tenderloin with fruit from Chowhound, which roasts the lean meat alongside sliced pears and figs (though I’ve rung the changes and cooked it with apples, plums and peaches depending on what’s in the house) as the ‘vegetable’ side. It works so well that you don’t even need to steam or boil some extra greens, and I always do far more fruit than the recipe suggests.
There are so many ways to cook fruit that it’s impossible to go through them all here, but I will try and come up with some new and exciting ways to do this. I’m also currently looking at many ways to use those out-of-season plums; and maybe even bring a new twist on a modern deli-counter/antipasti classic using the humble strawberry…the sky’s the limit.
So next time you’re out trying to get your five a day, and you’re bored of either waiting for stuff to ripen in your fruit bowl, or sick of making smoothies, have a think to see what you can do to make eating fruit just that little bit more interesting….promise it’s worth it.
Well it’s December the 24th, and here we are. A few hours to go.
Cynics may carp, to borrow from Nigella, but I wallow in all the sparkle of the season, as you probably can tell. When I’m not working, sleeping, or working out, I’m in the kitchen knocking up various festive staples. Christmas is as much as about ritual and tradition as it is celebration and excess, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s about food, fun and family.
Obviously, you’re going to get the naysayers, the nutritionists’ columns in the press urging us all to be healthy this Christmas – because the average person consumes 7000 calories on Christmas Day alone – and find some way of pouring haterade on the season of joy and goodwill. Last year, my newly-found culinary nemesis, Calgary Avansino (yes you can probably tell I really dislike this invasive American food fascist enormously) published this piece of dross, targeting the insecure and those who may have suffered eating disorders to forgo the warmth and tradition and eat clean over Christmas because after all, having one or two days where you just shed your dietary hangups and enjoy yourself just cannot happen under any circumstances. I won’t spoil the festive joy by way of another anti-clean-eating rant, but all I have to say to Ms ‘bye bye roasties’ Avansino – take your sanctimonious preaching and anally retentive puritanism and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine. The one thing I can’t stand is the annual influx of ‘oh my god I’m gonna get so fat’ whingers. Don’t try and make me feel bad for a bit of annual indulgence, nobody’s making you eat it – load up on the vegetables instead of the pigs in blankets, pipe down and take several seats. Or just get a freaking life and stop seasoning your Christmas dinner with so much guilt.
Now let’s get back to what matters.
In connection with my earlier post on seasonal storecupboard staples, I also have my set dishes that I cook year-in, year out. I have to confess that my Christmas is very much a Nigella one. Her Christmas book is a bible, never off the shelf throughout December, and many staples have result – her enchanting lamb and date tagine, decadent yet gratifyingly low-effort quickly-scaled mont blancs; her wonderfully evocatively-scented mulled cider; her scarlet and fiery chilli jelly (de rigeur for any leftover cooked meat or cheese), the celestially-fragranced yet lethal lycheeni cocktail and her tangily crimson cranberry-studded mincemeat are all compulsory in my kitchen and made with gusto every year.
My ‘day’ job is a night time shelf stacker and I visit the gym three times a week, but I always make time for the kitchen. It’s so easy to get frazzled at this time of year, thinking that you’re a slave to the stove, feeding family and friends around the clock and trying to make that never-reached ‘perfect Christmas’, but for me, part of the sheer joy of Christmas is digging out these annual dishes and wallowing in the traditions.
People ask me ‘how do you have time?’
Admittedly, I don’t have children or demanding-out-of-working-hours commitments bar sleeping, so I’m lucky in that respect. But I also feel that although you can buy really pretty good Christmas cakes, puddings and mince pies off the supermarket shelves these days, nothing is like making your own and the warm feeling of seeing people dive into something you spent time over.
Like my Christmas cake – same recipe, which I shared with you on Stir-Up Sunday, it’s all fairly uncomplicated, and most of all – you KNOW what went in. And this will be the second year running I will be making my own marzipan and fondant icing, which after years of buying premade, I found that with my vintage 1970s Kenwood Chef, are uncannily easy to make. And actually, having made Nigella’s Easy Chocolate Fruit Cake for a works buffet, I may have to reconsider next year’s…..we shall see. And to be quite honest, I am fond of a proper old-fashioned fruit cake as anyone who’s witnessed the number of tea loaves I produce over an average year will testify – so whilst we’re still in the winter period…watch this space.
Mince pies – my mother has always made her own, and I did even in my student days, albeit with jarred mincemeat (nothing wrong with that). But once I realised just how simple mincemeat is to make, I now do totally home-made mince pies too. Mincemeat is literally bunging ingredients together and stashing it laced in alcohol somewhere cool and dark. I tend to go old-school for mine – 2014’s effort came from a 1940s Ministry Of Food leaflet seen online, and this years, which will see me into 2016 and maybe even 2017, came from a cookbook from 1934.
The Christmas pud is an altogether more contentious issue – it’s the hours of steaming that put many (including me) off. But in 2013/early 2014 I had some vodka-soused fruit to use up so I had a go. The resultant pudding is still in storage, fed reasonably regularly since then and hopefully will be tested tomorrow. If it’s a success, I may branch out and make my own pud more regularly. Again, it’s just a bit of mixing and then steaming – all you need to is check the water doesn’t simmer away and you know you made it all yourself.
Finally, the main event – the Dinner. So much fear and anticipation for one meal. I’ve not yet gone the whole hog alone on the day, but I’ve made ‘mock’ Christmas dinners on the last weekend before Christmas as training camp and found it no more laborious than cooking a Sunday roast. So just think of it as a Sunday roast but just allow for more components.
Part of the sheer fear is that of not being able to obtain the vital components. If that happens, don’t break down and cry.
A couple of tips if time hasn’t been kind to the Christmas dinner cook:
The turkey. If you are that person who throws the 5pm-Christmas-Eve-supermarket-tantrum when they sell out of the big birds, or just have not had time to order one honestly, just dish up a large chicken. I honestly cannot detect a difference in taste between the two once they’re smothered in gravy, vegetables, cranberry and bread sauce and you may also have saved a fair bit of money in the process. You can still augment the humble workaday chook with sausagemeat and all your preferred accoutrements. Which brings me to…
…the sausagemeat stuffing. Don’t fret if they’ve sold out of the fancy sausagemeat stuffings. Save a few more pennies by purchasing a packet of sausages (even better as you can get some pretty damn good sausages nowadays) and squeeze the meat out the casings. May take a few more minutes but a little mixing (and plus you can add your own extras such as apple, onion, herbs and spices to really make it your own) will bring it together and nobody will know you forgot to buy sausagemeat – after all, the clue is in the name. And it’;s cheaper per kg/100g than the non-cased stuff.
But what about pigs in blankets? No problem, just buy some chipolatas/cocktail sausages and streaky bacon and make them yourself. There’s always a way around the seasonal sell-outs. It’s what I’ve taught myself so when I’m finally handed the baton and responsibility for main event duty, I won’t have a festive meltdown and know there’s always a plan B. A roasted turkey looks no different to a roasted chicken in my opinion, nobody will tell if the stuffing is actual ‘stuffing’ or just improvised from squeezed-out-bangers. And also, if you’re not feeding a huge crowd on the day, you won’t be chased towards 12th night with recurring leftover turkey…
Sprouts? Honestly, ask yourself (and whomever is partaking in dinner with you) who likes them, and who doesn’t? Is it worth putting an extra pan on for something nobody’s going to eat only for them to go cold and unwanted? Obviously every family has their own preferred vegetable combo, so I cannot advise anyone on that. Sprouts are seen as the traditional compulsory veg player but honestly, if the haters outnumber the lovers, just forego them and serve a different green instead. Nobody will hate you!
Bread sauce….this gloriously medievally-scented condiment is THE scent of Christmas day for me, wafting through the house and I will never be without it. Even if I’m the only one who likes it! If you miss out on the plastic chiller tubs, well, it’s not difficult to make. You’ll have bread and milk in the house (between you and me, its fine to use plastic white if it’s all you have!) and most likely onions, cloves, bay leaves, pepper and nutmeg/mace in the store cupboard. It’s just a case of infusing the milk with these aromatics like tea, tossing in the bread roughly hacked up and then let it drink up the spiced milk.until you have a foggily-fragranced mush.
So this tangented and random post sums up how I do Christmas.
From me to you, have a fantastic one, eat and drink and be freaking merry!
Well as we’re now 4 days into December, the festive season is well and truly upon us now. Christmas is generally for most of us, a time of rituals and traditions, and none more so than in the kitchen. At least for me. Apart from the Christmas cake and mince pies, I have a whole list of things that I make. I welcome the repetition evangelically and wallow in tradition – for example this week is when I always make cranberry mincemeat on top of my regular stuff. You can never have too much!
There are certain ingredients that only interest us at this time of year. Some are just fruit and veg that happen to be IN season, such as sprouts, so I’m not counting those. These things for me, are mostly available perenially but they’re only to be found on my shelf come December and would rarely be seen afterward.
A couple of honourable mentions:
Marrons glacé – Not the cheapest but certainly one of my festive indulgences. Candied chestnuts basically. Rich, flaky and sweet, only one is enough but I have to have them. Plus their high sugar content means they’ll keep.
Homemade chutneys and pickles – I appreciate that not all of us are this domestically inclined, but honestly, cold cuts and cheese post-Christmas are nothing without some spiky, fruity home-made chutney or chilli jelly on hand to perk them up.
Now to the top 5:
5. Waitrose signature spice
No promotion intended. This is a new thing launched by Waitrose for Christmas 2015, a blend of spices that encapsulates Yuletide warmth. Essentially it’s just mixed spice but with some tangerine oil and black pepper added to be honest, but they’ve suckered me in to buy two tubs! They’ve actually developed a whole line of products featuring this spice blend (I’ve also bought the Signature Spice hot chocolate which is to die for – it’s taste is lebkuchen in a mug with gold shimmer), some of which I think are a bit gimmicky but can see the appeal. So far, any recipe I have cooked that calls for mixed spice, I’ve replaced with Signature Spice (the parkin and gingerbread and Christmas cake recipes have all had this done) just for an extra special touch but I personally can’t tell the difference but then my palate has been unfortunately muted by tobacco.
4. Creme de marrons/sweetened chestnut spread (Clément Faugier is the most commonly seen brand)
This isn’t the ‘chestnut purée’ you may see down the canned veg aisle – that stuff is just blitzed nuts, ideal for a quick soup. You find this in the baking aisle in these lovely ornate small cans. It’s a dark brown, shiny and thick paste, made from cooked chestnuts, marrons glacé (candied chestnuts) sugar and vanilla, and I always keep it on hand purely to make a speedy version, courtesy of my culinary queen Nigella, of the obsolete mont blanc, a favourite seasonal dessert of mine. But quite frankly I could eat it straight from the can – it’s like crack cocaine. You’ll not taste anything quite like it and it’s not hideously expensive. And there many, many other uses for it if a mont blanc isn’t your thing (though in my opinion, how a glorious combo of whipped cream, meringue, dark chocolate and chestnuts couldn’t appeal to everyone is a mystery).
3. Port, Brandy and sherry
Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without these propping up my drinks cabinet. Some people like rum as their alcoholic muse whereas I go for the brandy every time. I’m not a brandy drinker but it’s imperative for keeping my mincemeat going and feeding my Christmas cake, same for sherry. You can see as well my zero tolerance for kitchen snobbishness in the picture – the brandy is value brand and the sherry is a British made imitation. Both do the same job for a few pounds less than their more authentic superiors.
Thrifty intentions notwithstanding; if you can stretch your budget, please do invest in a bottle of Pedro Ximinez sherry. It’s nothing like the dry stuff your great aunt knocks back – it’s dark, viscous and tooth-killingly sweet – great for feeding the pud or the cake, or even mixed up in a cocktail. Ruby port (it’s the cheapest) is usually mainly purchased for the aforementioned cranberry mincemeat and then subsequently enjoyed with stilton (which I’m mildly allergic to so it really is a seasonal splurge for me), but I also keep it on hand during the year after Christmas as a good substitute for red wine in cooking as it saves buying/opening a bottle of red especially.
2. Vaccuum-packed or canned, cooked chestnuts
Chestnuts roasted on the open fire are one of those fiercely evocative images of the season, and indeed the fresh nuts can be obtained in any supermarket, or for free if you’re lucky enough to live near a tree you can scrump from. But they can be a mare to prepare, with throat-tickling papery skins and potential to burst int the embers.
But they make an unctuously comforting soup which keeps the bitter December cold out (I have a fantastic recipe for it which is due to be posted here very soon) and are a fabulous addition to stuffings, so the vac-pack, often on offer come December is a god-send for the banana-fingered and impatient amongst us. Plus they keep for far longer than the fresh nuts.
1. Red, gold and green candied cherries
These are only available in autumn and winter but if you see some, I highly recommend you pick them up. They’re also available online, as mentioned in the American fruitcake recipe (for which they are compulsory. Naturally-hued ones will not be the same there but if you do make an American fruitcake with naturally coloured ones, don’t tell me about it.). They add an instant festive frisson of colour to whatever you bake, without any variation in flavour, so can inject a bright sparkle into your Christmas cake or pud, or simply transform plain cherry scones or marzipan and cherry cakes into a joyous kaleidoscope of holly wreath-themed hues. I will be posting a simple recipe shortly that makes use of these.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In June this year though, I have to admit, I’d let myself go a touch.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.