May | 2014 | The Proof of the Pudding

For the last few weeks I have been craving…vegetables. Now, before we fall out, I just want to reassure you that I’m not a total freak and also crave things like pizza, blue cheese, chocolate and salt and vinegar crisps (not all at the same time…probably). But right now, my current craving is for fresh, crisp, colourful veggies. I think it’s because I’m aware that summer is just around the corner, ready to bring with it such glorious presents as lettuce, peas in the pod, asparagus stalks, courgettes and globe artichokes.

One of my absolute favourite food blogs is Manger, written by the exquisite Mimi Thorisson. Literally, exquisite. I haven’t yet made nearly enough of her incredible looking recipes, but each one that I have made has been perfect: rustic, indulgent and utterly scrumptious. I’ve had her spring vegetable stew (La Vignarola) bookmarked for well over 6 months now, and finally had the chance to cook it last week. Unfortunately, in my impatience to make it, I was a little early for the Scottish artichoke and pea season, so I had to improvise with the fresh vegetables that I could get my hands on. Luckily asparagus is already available in abundance here, and our local market store had a large basket of broad beans. It was exciting to cook with lettuce for the first ever time and I completely adored the result. I have to confess that Ross wasn’t convinced, but I’ll put that down to his inferior taste buds…

Ingredients (serves 2-3 as a side dish) Large bag of fresh broad beans in the pod (about 300g podded beans) 1 little gem lettuce 2 spring onions 200g asparagus 1 tsp olive oil 100g pancetta or smoked bacon ½ lemon Small bunch parsley, finely chopped

Small bunch mint, finely chopped

Method 1. Pod the broad beans and set aside for later. I find podding beans and peas truly relaxing. It’s a slow, methodical task that should be savoured and, ideally, done outside perched on the back-door step. As we don’t have a garden I threw open the windows and put the radio on. To my surprise, as I snapped open some of the pods, inside the velvet cocoons were lilac and deep purple beans. I have no idea why this is –the variety of bean, the stage of picking, or something else altogether…if anyone can enlighten me I would love to know!… Quarter the gem lettuce, slice the spring onions and chop the asparagus into chunks.

I was blown away by this recipe. The vegetables take centre stage and the last minute addition of lemon juice and herbs brings the dish to life with a zesty, aromatic flavour. I’m hoping to make this recipe many more times this summer, and am especially looking forward to using fresh peas, broad beans and artichokes from dad’s allotment, as the dish was supposed to include. If you’re going to make this recipe yourself, I wouldn’t worry if you can’t find the same vegetables as myself or Mimi – just use the best seasonal vegetables available to you and it will be stunning.

As my dad used to say (in a funny voice): “Spring has sprung, the grass has riz, I wonder where the birdies is.” Weird, I know. But it’s true and we’re making the most of it with adventures into the outdoors and seasonal cooking. Nothing says spring to me more than lamb with mint sauce, and our little kitchen window-sill mint plant was getting dangerously out of control, so last Sunday lamb and mint was what we had to have.

Usually we would always choose a leg of lamb to cook with, but with only two of us eating we decided that lamb shanks were much more economical and manageable. If you’re cooking for more, then the recipe will easily double, triple, or more. Of course if you’re treating yourself then you can also halve the quantities. The same goes for the mint sauce: make as much as you need. The measures below are a generous amount for two, as I like to drown my lamb and potatoes in the stuff.

We decided to use our new tagine again (last time we did BBQ pulled pork) and were once more amazed with the results. There is something magical about a tagine that transforms meat into the most delicate, moist dish after just a few hours in the oven. We have also discovered that sliced onions cooked in a tagine soak up all the surrounding juices and end up sweet, caramelised and melt in the mouth. Our new rule of thumb? Onions in every tagine dish. However, don’t worry if you don’t have a tagine to cook in. This recipe will work well in any heavy-based pot that has a lid and can go in the oven, or you could simply use a roasting tin well-covered in tin foil.

Lamb Shanks
Ingredients (serves 2)
4 sprigs rosemary 2 small onions 4-5 garlic cloves 1 chicken stock cube 1 tbsp olive oil Salt and pepper

2 lamb shanks

Method 1. Preheat the oven to 150C fan/ 170C/Gas Mark 3. 2. Remove the thin rosemary leaves from the woody stalks and roughly chop. Thinly slice the onions and crush the garlic cloves. Place in the tagine and sprinkle with the stock cube.

3. Generously season the lamb shanks and heat the olive oil in a frying pan. Quickly brown the lamb on all sides over a high heat.

4. Nestle the shanks amongst the onion layer and fill the tagine to roughly ¼ of the way up with boiling water. Pop the tagine’s hat on and cook for 3 hours.

Mint Sauce

Ingredients Bunch of mint (about 10 sprigs) 2 tbsp white wine vinegar 1 tsp sugar

5 tbsp hot water (e.g. from a recently boiled kettle)

Method 1. Remove the mint leaves from the stalks and finely chop.

2. Put the chopped leaves in a small jug or bowl and mix with the vinegar, sugar and water. Adjust the balance of vinegar, sugar and water to suit your own taste.

After three hours in the oven, the lamb shanks will be ridiculously tender and the meat will fall effortlessly from the bone.

Serve with the soft onions, the mint sauce, steamed new potatoes and spring vegetables. We had a stunning vegetable side dish which I will give you the recipe for next time – it was a real treat! I don’t think this dish needs an additional gravy: the meat is so moist, the onions come swathed in a thick gravy-like liquid and the mint sauce is an added bonus.

Eating this meal, with the windows thrown open and the evening sun sinking over the neighbouring buildings, made me so happy and excited for the months ahead. Spring really has sprung.

Two weekends ago Ross and I spent three wonderful nights staying in a yurt on West Moss-side Farm in the Trossachs. West Moss-side is an organic farm and arts and crafts centre, owned by the lovely Kate who made our stay so special and relaxed. Kate rears organic Shetland cows, hires out three large yurts, runs craft workshops and has a gallery showcasing local artwork. We arrived to a glorious sunset and were blown away by the inside of our yurt: candle-lit, covered with cosy rugs and blankets and decorated with wild flowers. The yurt is furnished with a double bed (much more like sleeping indoors than camping, though you do still have the sound of rain on canvas at night and walking outside you are in the middle of a field), a well-equipped “kitchen” area including a two-ring gas stove and grill, a sofa bed, coffee table and a wood-burning stove. The wood-burning stove is primarily used to heat the yurt (much-needed in Scotland, even in the spring), but there is also an oven compartment which we were informed could be used for cooking….so, naturally, we had to give it a go!

This post is a little different to normal. We are in no way wood-burning stove experts (as I will demonstrate in just a moment), but we had a lot of fun experimenting with different recipes and I think by the end we had learned from our mistakes and got the hang of cooking in a wood-burning stove. So I’m going to take you through our wood-burning stove learning curve, and if you do want to vaguely follow any of these recipes then you too can learn from our mistakes and hopefully improve on our own attempts!

No-Knead Crusty Le Creuset Bread
I’ve been desperate to try out this recipe for a while now, after seeing various blogs rave about the results from this no-knead Le Creuset white bread recipe. Of course, you don’t need to have a Le Creuset pot to make this loaf, any pot with a lid and thick base will do. However, I was given a beautiful Le Creuset pot by my grandparents years ago which I use for everything from Bolognese to curry to one-pot roasts. It seemed (to optimistic minds) like the perfect recipe for cooking in a yurt – ridiculously simple, no kneading required and cooked inside a pot in a hot oven. It all began so well. We whipped up the simple dough on our first night. We’re talking flour, yeast, salt and water, mixed in a bowl. Simples. We left it overnight as directed and were delighted to wake up to a bubbly, risen mixture.
Still optimistic, the dough shaped easily into a lovely soft ball. The pot heated in the oven and we popped the loaf in to cook.

Here we learnt our first wood-burning stove lesson: there is no thermometer. I mean, obviously we knew this beforehand, but we hadn’t quite appreciated what this meant. Although the stove was giving out a fair amount of heat, it was nowhere near hot enough for the bread. Throwing the oven door open after the instructed time, ready to tip out our freshly baked bread and slather it in butter, we were confronted with a sad, pale pot of porridge. Still clinging to our bread dreams we decided to shut the oven door again and keep our fingers crossed. After double the original cooking time the crust of the bread finally looked like, well, bread. In fact, the crust of the bread was pretty tasty, but as you can see the overall loaf fell a bit…flat.

The inside of the bread just hadn’t ever cooked through properly, which was a shame as when you ripped into it the dough had a nice structure. I will definitely be trying this recipe again in my own electric oven at home, but I still believe it would work in a wood-burning stove if the temperature was hot enough when the bread first goes in.

Slow-cooked Beef Brisket
After our disappointing bread, we dusted ourselves off and moved on to the piece of organic brisket that we had bought from Kate. We gave the cut a rinse and popped it inside a pot with red wine, butter and plenty of salt and pepper.

Surely with ingredients like that nothing could go wrong? Here we learned our second wood-burning stove lesson: it is extremely tricky to regulate the oven temperature. We covered the pot in foil, got the fire going and left the beef bubbling (or so we thought) while we went out for a sunny bike ride. A few hours later we returned and opened up the pot. The sight that met our eyes was not appetizing: grey beef with a slightly raw underside. Panicking slightly (or panicking a lot, if you’re Ross) we removed the foil and stoked the fire until it was roaring. Another couple of hours later we had another peek and were confronted with a blackened piece of beef. Panicking slightly again, we left the meat to rest and got the accompaniments ready. However, when we cut into the brisket and removed the outer layer, the inside was as melt in the mouth as you’d like. The meat was easily shredded with a fork and the cooking liquid had reduced to make a tasty sauce.

Kate’s organic Shetland beef has a strong, unusual flavour, resulting from a combination of the breed of cow and the 100% organic home-grown feed, and we loved it. A success. We were pleased, and full.

Garlic Mushrooms and Roasted Sweetcorn

By our final night we had learned our third wood-burning stove lesson and were sticking to it: keep it simple. We cooked vegetables which didn’t rely on a steady or specific cooking temperature and timed frying our sirloin steaks according to how they cooked. The mushrooms were piled in a ceramic pot with large knobs of butter, lots of crushed garlic cloves and a generous amount of seasoning.
The results were absolutely delicious and a perfect partner for the steaks. The corn was just simply covered in foil and came out juicy and a little blackened round the ages.

Slathered in butter and sprinkled with salt, they were delicious.

Baked Camembert
We had learned our three lessons. There’s not much to elaborate on here. Melted cheese + red wine + fresh baguette = heaven.

We had a really enjoyable time playing around with the stove and overall I think we did pretty well for first-timers. We will be back to West Moss-side Farm, without a doubt, and maybe next time cooking in the stove we will hit the ground running from the start. Maybe not.

I hope you enjoyed our wood-burning stove journey. Don’t worry, we’ll be back to regular recipes that you can be confident will actually work next time!

If you have any experiences with cooking in wood-burning stoves then I would absolutely love to hear about them…

In this household we have an addiction and we’re admitting to it: we love pizza. And when I say we love it I mean it, in every shape and form that pizza can take. From authentic Italian pizza eaten in candle-lit restaurants in the heart of Naples to fancy Edinburgh delivery pizzas that come with bags of rocket and Parma ham to add to your pizza at the last second (you know the one I mean), we enjoy the fancier side of pizza. But we’re not ashamed to admit to enjoying a $1 pizza slice on the streets of New York, a greasy Dominos when we’re feeling particularly delicate or a cardboard-packaged supermarket pizza when we’re feeling particularly lazy. This is the wonder of pizza: it can be as humble or as extravagant as you like.

Although it may seem that the pizza base is just a vessel for stringy cheese and a multitude of toppings, it is so much more than that. A good base can be just as tasty as the other parts of a pizza and, after quite a few trials (I’m so good to you), I think I’ve found a base that is crisp, chewy and full of flavour. Use strong bread flour, or even 00, if you have it in the house, but this will work just as well with plain (Tesco Value) flour which is what I used. Of course, all this said, we can’t forget about the toppings, but I’ll keep faith in you that you know what you’re doing when it comes to this. You know what you want.

Although it is guzzled with equal gratification by adults, pizza is an ideal recipe to make with kids. I’ve made pizza quite a few times with my younger cousins and they always loved the hands-on process of kneading and rolling, the creativity when it comes to topping the pizza or making leftover dough into garlic bread or dough balls and, obviously, the final result.

Ingredients (makes 4 large pizzas) 7g sachet of dried yeast 1 tbsp sugar 330ml warm water 500g plain flour 2 tsp salt

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tin of tomatoes 2 garlic cloves 1 tbsp olive oil 2 tsp oregano

Salt and pepper

Pizza toppings of your choice
Semolina for baking

Method 1. Mix the yeast, water and sugar together and set aside for a few minutes.

2. Measure out the flour and salt into a large bowl and make a well in the middle.

3. Pour the yeast mixture and olive oil into the middle and mix well with a wooden spoon until you have a thick, sticky dough.

4. Tip the dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead with floured hands for 10-15 minutes, until you have a soft, smooth dough. You may need to add a little more flour as you knead, but try not to add too much as it will change the balance of liquid to flour in the dough. I always try to knead in the way that I saw baking guru and silver fox Paul Hollywood demonstrate it, where you start with an oblong, fold down a couple of times with the palm of your hand, turn by 90 degrees and repeat (this is difficult to explain in words but watch here if you want to see the master at work!). This process is necessary to build up the gluten strands in the dough and Paul Hollywood makes it look ridiculously easy. I usually get bored of being so restrained after about five minutes, so end up bashing the dough about with my fists. I’d say that when it comes to kneading, as long as you give it enough time, anything goes – particularly if you’re cooking with kids. I mean, this is the fun, messy part right?

5. Lightly oil a large bowl and place the kneaded dough inside. Cover in cling film and then a dish cloth or towel and place somewhere warm for 2 hours. 6. Meanwhile you can make the pizza sauce, which simply involves bunging the tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and oregano in a blender, seasoning and blitzing until smooth. One tin of tomatoes makes enough sauce for 5-6 large pizzas, but it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days, and even freezes well.

7. Preheat the oven to 220C fan/240C/Gas Mark 8. If you have a pizza stone then pop it in the oven to heat up; if not then pre-heating a baking tray will achieve a similar effect. The dough should now have risen so that it is about double in size. Tip out onto a floured surface and “knock back” – give the dough a quick 30 seconds of kneading.

8. Divide the dough into 4, or more, pieces and roll out to the thickness of base that you like. Place the base on a piece of tin foil sprinkled with semolina.

9. Now is your chance to get creative with the toppings. This time I went for mozzarella, pesto, mushrooms, olives and Parma ham, but as you well know the options are endless.

10. Transfer the foil and pizza onto your pizza stone or baking tray and cook for 8-10 minutes until bubbling and crisp.

I hope this post has inspired you to get your hands dirty and whip up some homemade pizzas. It might seem like a lot of processes, but the end meal is incredibly satisfying.

What’s your favourite kind of pizza: greasy takeout, thin crust, deep pan American-style? And what would your perfect pizza topping be? For me, my pizza essentials are always cheese and mushrooms. Anything else is a bonus.

Rhubarb has a fairly long and generous season, as I mentioned before when sharing my recipe for a Rhubarb Crumble. At the start of the year forced rhubarb starts to peak its golden-crowned head up, but now that spring is really upon us the dark red stalks are really coming into their prime. Now is the time to peruse the supermarket shelves or pop into your local greengrocers and grab a pile of stalks for a crumble or a pie or some simple stewed rhubarb. I’m lucky enough to have a green-fingered father who lives nearby, and received a beautiful bunch of rhubarb stalks freshly picked from his allotment two weekends ago. It was so perfectly fresh that I didn’t want to muck around with it (besides, with only two of us in the house most of the time, endless puddings and desserts can get a bit much…it’s a hard life, I know). So I stewed it up with a few complementing flavours: vanilla, cinnamon and ginger.

Ingredients 600g rhubarb (about 6 large stalks, with the ends chopped off) 150g caster sugar 2 tsp vanilla extract 1 tsp ground cinnamon 2 tsp freshly grated ginger

6 tbsp water

Method 1. Chop the rhubarb into small pieces, about 2 inches long.

2. Place the rhubarb into a large pan and add the sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger and water. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cook on a low heat for about 5 minutes for a mixed consistency with some rhubarb still in whole pieces – you want a fork to easily slide through the chunks, and not meet with resistance. If you’d like a more liquid consistency then the take the cooking on for a couple more minutes, it won’t take long.

3. Eat hot or leave to cool in the pan, then transfer to a bowl or container and refrigerate.

This compote was so simple but utterly scrummy, and the ginger in particular made it wonderfully fragrant. If you follow me on Instagram, you might have noticed that we had it (the night I cooked it) on top of mini pavlovas:

All I did was follow the meringue recipe from a previous post (but without the extra flavourings and using just one egg white), shape the mixture into two large meringues and top with crème fraiche and the compote to finish. I also had the compote for breakfast every day for a week with coconut yogurt and never got bored of it:

This would be perfect on top of porridge or cereal – I did try to tempt Ross to have it on his cereal, but he has a strict No-Fruit-On-My-Cereal policy. This will keep in the fridge for a week, or you can even freeze it for later. I’m hoping for another fresh rhubarb delivery this week and am thinking about a rhubarb and strawberry pie – a match made in heaven. What’s your favourite thing to cook with rhubarb?

We’re not big biscuit eaters in this household. However, that’s not to mean that we won’t say “Yes please” when the right one comes along. It was a lazy Saturday and I had a few hours alone in the flat before we were off out for a game of pitch and putt and then back for a movie night with friends (The Wolf of Wall Street – so brilliant, I highly recommend it). Cookies seemed like the ideal film-watching snack, something sweet and satisfying to graze on with a glass of wine in hand.

Every recipe that I have made from the The Londoner’s blog has turned out beautifully, from meatballs to jerk chicken to banana and Nutella muffins. Her recipes are usually simple and straightforward, but with consistently tasty results. In the back of my mind I remembered seeing a chocolate and peanut cookie recipe, so to my laptop and google it was. I only made a few small tweaks to the original cookie dough recipe: I used dark chocolate and salted peanuts since these were what I had in the cupboards, and added peanut butter for an extra peanut hit. I also slightly reduced the amount of vanilla extract as it seemed like a lot for the amount of dough, and, at £5 a small bottle, vanilla extract is a luxury in my kitchen!

Ingredients (makes 24 large cookies) 170g butter 200g light brown muscavado sugar 100g caster sugar 1 tsp vanilla extract 1 egg, plus 1 egg yolk 250g plain flour ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda ½ tsp salt 2 tbsp peanut butter 80g dark chocolate – I used half dark chocolate chips and half dark chocolate broken into chunks

100g salted peanuts

Method 1. Preheat the oven to 160C fan/180C/Gas Mark 4. 2. Melt the butter over a low heat and mix with the two sugars.

3. Lightly beat the egg and egg yolk with the vanilla and add to the sugar mixture.

4. Weigh out the dry ingredients (flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt) and sift. Or, if you’re too lazy to sift (read: I’m too lazy to sift) give the flour a light whisk: hey presto, lump-free aerated flour! Add the wet ingredients and the peanut butter and mix well.

5. Add the chocolate and peanuts and mix thoroughly so the ingredients are evenly distributed.

6. Line a couple of baking trays with greaseproof paper. Wet your hands as this will make it easier to roll the cookie dough without getting it stuck to your hands. Roll the cookies into balls, roughly the size of a golf ball or a little larger, and place on the baking trays. Remember that the cookies will spread quite a lot as they cook so generously space them apart – this meant I had to do mine in two batches, so place the dough in the fridge while you wait for the first batch to cook if you need to do the same.

7. Use a fork to gently press the cookies down. Note: if you don’t do this last step then the cookies will take a little longer to cook, so be aware of this.

8. Bake for 12 minutes and remove onto a wire rack to cool. The cookies will seem incredibly soft when first out the oven but will firm up slightly as they cool, so don’t worry.

These cookies were deeeelicious. The texture is crisp on the edges, but satisfyingly chewy in the middle just as a good cookie should be. The dark chocolate chunks melt slightly and stay gooey after cooling, while the peanuts add a lovely saltiness to the cookies. Salty and sweet is just the best combination right?

I think it’s safe to say that the cookies were a hit: David took a doggy bag of cookies away with him after movie night, Ross has been taking them to work every day since I baked them and I took a couple for some kids I look after: one inhaled the whole cookie in about 30 seconds and the other savoured every mouthful (ate half before swimming, wrapped the rest up, ate half of the half after swimming, wrapped the rest up, ate the final quarter when we got home – unbelievable restraint for a 6 year old, how do I achieve that?!). Both declared “These cookies are even better than the ones from the Commie Pool Café”. If that’s not high praise indeed I don’t know what is.

I love Thai food. I find it’s the kind of food that you get an instant, and very strong, craving for and you just won’t be satisfied until you’ve had jasmine rice topped with a luscious green curry or sticky satay skewers. One of my absolute favourite Thai dishes is Pad Thai, a noodle dish that perfectly combines sweet, salty and sour flavours. I had one of these Thai cravings a few weekends ago, coinciding with Ross trying to shake the tail end of a cold and hankering after some spice so that he could actually taste something. Pad Thai seemed like the perfect answer to both our needs, as you can customise your own bowl after cooking with extra chilli (for Ross) or whatever other flavour you’re craving on that day, or even in that mouthful. In a restaurant I would usually go for prawn Pad Thai, and if you’re the same then just substitute the chicken with a couple of hundred grams of raw prawns and reduce the cooking time slightly. Of course you could also make this a vegetarian dish by swapping the meat for tofu, or lots of colourful veggies.

As with a lot of Asian cuisine, I find it’s easiest to prepare everything before you begin cooking. It’s frantic enough in the last few minutes as it is, and life will be so much easier if all the ingredients are lying out, prepared and ready to be tossed in a hot pan. I know it seems like a lot of effort, but trust me it will be well worth it.

Ingredients (serves 2) 1-2 chicken breasts 200g rice noodles 2 limes, 1 cut into wedges for serving 2 tsp brown sugar 2 tbsp fish sauce ¼ tsp chilli flakes, plus extra to serve 1 tbsp tamarind paste 2 tsp soy sauce 2 pak choi 4 spring onions Large bunch of coriander 1 egg 2-3 tbsp salted peanuts 1 tbsp sesame oil, or vegetable oil such as sunflower or groundnut

150g beansprouts

Method 1. Chop the chicken into bite sized pieces.

2. Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions. Mine required five minutes in boiling water, a plunge into cold water and then drained, but other types will vary.

3. Mix the juice of one of the limes with the fish sauce, chilli flakes, tamarind paste and soy sauce and set aside for later.

4. Slice the spring onions and pak choi and finely chop the coriander, including the stalks. Reserve a few nice coriander leaves for a garnish if you’re feeling fancy.

5. Gently beat the egg and set aside.

6. Crush the peanuts in a mortar and pestle, or in a plastic bag using a rolling pin. Go for a mix of textures, with some very fine and some chunky pieces.

7. Heat the sesame oil in a wok until very hot – the trick here is to have a screaming hot wok to cook in. Add the chicken and brown on all sides.

8. Add the spring onion and pak choi and cook for 2 minutes.

At this point things are getting pretty heated in the kitchen so get someone to open a cold one of these for you…

…you deserve it.

9. Push the ingredients to one side of the wok and pour in the beaten egg. Allow to cook for about 30 seconds and then break into pieces and toss together with the rest of the stir fry.
9. Add the beansprouts, noodles and sauce and mix thoroughly. Cook for 2-3 more minutes and turn off the heat. Mix through the coriander.

10. Serve the Pad Thai in bowls topped with a spoonful of chopped peanuts and the saved coriander leaves.

A plate of optional extras (lime wedges, peanuts and chilli flakes) and a bottle of soy sauce on the table will let everyone enjoy their Pad Thai exactly to their own liking.

And there we go: cravings satisfied.

Until it comes to writing up the recipe…aaaaand now they’re back…