21 April 2014

Simple Pleasures, Number 20

I joked on Twitter the other day that, for a man who's written a book about chocolate - which I might have mentioned once or twice - you might have thought somebody would have given me an Easter egg but no, the chocolatey treats are only noticeable y their absence. There was some salvation though, courtesy of Mrs L's lovely Auntie Sheila who, I discovered, has a tradition that highdays and holidays should be marked with the giving of Terry's Chocolate Oranges. I can't remember the last time I had one of these and, yes, sure, as the author of a book about chocolate that I might have mentioned once or twice, maybe I should be marking this weekend with something by Amedei or Valrhona or one of Rococo's finest, but: a) you should never look gift chocolate in the mouth; and b) one segment in, and it was like being a kid again. Like the cheese roll in the previous Simple Pleasures post, it's remarkable how quickly smell and taste take hold of your emotions. You could easily argue that the Chocolate Orange is too sweet or too artificial and you'd probably be right, but that's missing the point. It's fun, I'm struggling to resist just one more segment and I'm grinning from ear to ear. All of that and it's probably one of my five-a-day, right? Thank you, Terry's - and thank you Auntie Sheila. 

12 April 2014

A Flavour of Spring. Finally.

Further to the last post - and a fascinating Twitter conversation about ASA Standards - this one could seem a little familiar. It certainly touches on the ethical nature of the last post, but also returns to the earlier post about making bacon

As mentioned then, I was approached by Maldon Salt with promises of free salt and tickets to the Edible Garden Show, in return for a bit of cooking, a few words and a little bit of photography, under the banner or "Flavours of Spring". The best entry - and you can see the rest under the #flavoursofspring hashtag - would also win a couple of nights at River Cottage. It sounded like a pretty sweet deal to me... but then there was the predictable spanner / works situation. On the weekend of the Edible Garden Show, I was at the rather lovely Abadia Retuerta Le Domaine with some serious journalistic types discussing the last 20 years of gastronomy with - NAME DROPPING KLAXON - Ferran Adria. That's not the sort of invite you can really so "no" to, is it?  More importantly though, the shopping world was somewhat lacking in actual flavours of spring. 

By which I mean British flavours of spring. I could find Brazilian and Mexican asparagus but the glorious British stuff was notable by its absence. Similarly, the rain earlier this year has delayed Jersey Royal season. While some restaurants have been championing the arrival of peas and broad beans, surely these are summer crops? My plans then, save for the home cured bacon that I've already gone on and on about, were looking pretty much scuppered and another "can't say no" trip to Spain last weekend - a preview of this at El Celler de Can Roca - meant I missed last weekend's competition deadline. And yes, I know, that's the sound of the world's smallest violin... 

And then this morning, down at Borough Market, I finally found some proper, sweet, vibrantly green British asparagus and, competition deadline or no, supper was sorted. Steamed asparagus, a soft poached Burford Brown, a sprinkling of diced Maldon Salt-and-maple-syrup-cured bacon, a pinch of Maldon's smoked salt had long been the plan and it was every bit as good - and as golden - as I'd imagined. There was also late inspiration from the counter of my old beloved employer Neal's Yard Dairy in the form of Sleightlett, Mary Holbrook's brilliant charcoal-covered fresh cheese which was probably still in a goat about this time last week. And if that doesn't qualify as a flavour of spring, I don't know what does. So, the River Cottage might not be an option but man was it worth the wait... 

5 April 2014

Food Adventures

This week has been a bit of an epic. Even by my belt-straining standards, it's been epic. Last weekend, I was in Spain as part of a group of journalists discussing the last 20 years of gastronomy with Ferran Adria. Well, that was the intention, it was more being part of the group of journalists in the same room as Ferran Adria as Ferran Adria went off at tangents, wrote lists and left us mostly happily baffled. More on that another time. Possibly. 

From there, I had 12 hours at home before heading up to Glasgow and Edinburgh for five days of grazing for a couple of features. And tomorrow I head back to Spain with The Macallan for two-and-a-bit more days of eating. 

And right now, I'm back at home with a fun obligation to fulfill and, as it happens, one that's going to restore a little balance. A few weeks ago, Lurpak approached me to ask if I'd be interested in a little bit of advertorial and take part in something called "Food Adventures" (or #FoodAdventures for those on Twitter) and a chance to try something from their new Cook's Range

The range includes Clarified Butter, Cooking Liquid, Baking Butter (blended so it's soft straight from the fridge - though quite why you wouldn't just keep regular butter OUT of the fridge like normal people remains to be answered) and Cooking Mist. Yes. Indeed. That was the mystery one and It was the one that came in my box of goodies, together with some cinnamon sticks and four glossy red chillies. The challenge? Make something with the ingredients. 

The Cooking Mist is, apparently, designed for glazing or basting (or for greasing pans and baking tins), which I'll test at some point I'm sure. However, I was looking at it as a way of lightly frying stuff: it's a blend of rape seed oil and Lurpak butter in an aerosol, so it seemed a good way of coating a pan evenly and maybe cutting down on a little bit of fat intake. Yes, it's a small gesture but they all count, right? Plus, frankly, I've written enough about roasting chickens in the past... and wasn't really sure how to get cinnamon into that one and make it edible. No, whenever I see chillies and cinnamon sticks together, my thoughts go straight to Simon Majumdar and his brilliant "Life Saving Dahl" recipe. And, while I've tried to be sensible over the last few days - yomping uphill around Edinburgh is always a good calorie burner - plates of jamon, dishes like haggis and Cumberland sausage hash with whisky sauce and an Aberdeen butterie with home made marmalade do leave you feeling a little... The precise word escapes me but an "oof" like noise should give the idea. Accordingly, a week or so of a healthy, hearty vegetarian dish finished with lots of lemon juice sounded like a perfect solution all round. And yes, while Simon's recipe calls for green chillies, I'm sure even he'd agree with the concept that if life gives you, er, red chillies, you make red chilli paste. 

Having made this a few times, I tend to get a little free and easy with the ingredients and quantities in general. But here's Simon's original. 


One cup of red lentils (toasted first in a dry pan. I use my fingers to stir and when it is too hot to touch, it is done)

One unwaxed lemon chopped in quarters
One onion sliced

Two cardamom pods

Two cloves
One cinnamon stick

Three cloves garlic
Three fresh green chillies (or red, if someone's sent you some. Obviously.)
Two inches of fresh ginger

One teaspoon each of ground turmeric / ginger / cumin / coriander seed / hot chilli powder
Half a teaspoon of salt
One teaspoon sugar
One-and-a-half pints of water, chicken or vegetable stock
One bag of spinach ( washed )


Make a paste by blending the ginger, garlic and fresh chilli with a little salt and water.

Put two tablespoons of oil into a hot pan and when it comes to heat, add the cardamom, cloves and cinnamon stick. Cook for one minute on a low heat until they release their flavour. In the circumstances, I switched out the vegetable oil for the Cooking Mist and it seemed to work well. I love the smells of this stage... 

Add the onion and cook on a low heat until it begins to soften and turn golden. Don't rush this, you want the natural sweetness of the onions to be released.

Add the ginger/chilli/garlic paste and cook for two to four minutes until it loses its rawness.

Add the ground spices, sugar and salt and mix well with the onions and cook out for four minutes until the spices lose their rawness. If the mixture begins to stick add a little water.

Add the lentils and mix well so all the pulses are covered with the mixture.

The next step is where, typically, Simon and I part ways. He says "add water / stock and the quartered lemons and simmer for 30 minutes until the lentils have broken down. Add more water if it sticks. Some lentils may take a little longer." I'd agree with the quantities and that some of the lentils take a little longer but I leave out the lemons at this stage and put everything into the slow cooker for, well, hours or days. Adding the lemons and then slow cooking makes the dish incredibly bitter - a mistake you only make once as there's no way to pull it back from that particular disaster.

If you're adding spinach, add it right at the end, cover and allow to wilt into the lentils. It's only missing because I forgot about it in my rush to take a photo. 

Serve over a halved hard boiled egg, with a big squeeze of lemon juice. It's also good with a handful of fresh coriander, sliced green chillies, a spoon of yoghurt, your favourite chutney, all of the above... 

Actually, whatever you do to it, it's just good. Damned good. There's some heat - and the red chilli switch out didn't appear to make any difference to my tastebuds - but the spicing is the proper kind, a back note of warmth and depth of flavour and that burst of lemon juice is bloody genius. After a few days of self-inflicted (well, professional) excess, this is as glorious a restorative dish as I know.