Monday, 30 August 2010

Ben, Sophie Grigson, and I

I am smiling. There are times when luck is with you. Having only ever met two famous people in my life, I have, this weekend, met both Raymond Blanc and Sophie Grigson. Luck does not mean that I don’t work exceedingly hard, but it can certainly give you a heads up in life.

Today I went to the Northampton food and drink show at Holdenby House where Sophie Grigson was giving a food demonstration. With over 20 books published she is considered to be one of our top food writers, having written for many years her columns have been published in both The Independent and the Times. It doesn’t get much better than that. Above photo taken by Sara Browne.

For me Sophie has a way that puts the food right at the front of what she talks about. Before herself comes the food. She is both highly knowledgeable and enthusiastic with a clear sense of communicating to her audience both on screen and in her books. She is one of my food hero’s, so I was nervous about meeting her. As a not even published author, I wanted to ask her if she would give me her opinion on my book when it is finished.

I ummed and arrred about how she might react to my request, playing various rejection scenarios out in my head as I approached back stage. I appreciate how busy she is, after all this was the end of a working day for her. Despite several people telling me how lovely she is I was quite concerned I would be interrupting her. Really, I need not have been the slightest bit nervous. Even though she did not know me from Adam, (no pun intended as Adam Grey was there in mid demonstration, ) she greeted me with warmth and genuine interest. Along with her adorable dog Ben, she put me at ease instantly. Thank goodness, she really is as lovely as people said she is.

What did strike me, aside from her relaxed demeanour and warm laugh, were her bright green eyes, glowing skin and her verve for both food, and life. There is an energy, which radiates around her. You could quite literally see the effect she had on people as they were exiting the demonstration. They left purposefully full of intention to buy the ingredients and get home to cook. That’s influence.

She is a leading food ambassador, a seriously successful author as well as being the sort of person you would want to phone up to tell good news to, because she really would be pleased for you. I was indeed cheeky enough to ask if she would have a look at Prepped before it is published.. and I asked if perhaps she would say something nice about the book for the cover. She fixed a wry smile and said yes .. of course …. as long as I actually do like it.

Now you can’t argue with that!

She inspires.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Raymond Blanc & Eating my words in Oxford

I am sitting at my computer wondering if my day could have been any better. No.... Today was one of the best days ever.
For our 10th wedding anniversary my husband promised to take me to any restaurant of my choice. My first thought ran to Le Manoir, Raymond Blanc’s place in Oxfordshire. It was fully booked. The receptionist seemed genuinely sorry, but she was also delightful, suggesting that we try instead Le Brasserie Blanc on Walton Street, Oxford. I will admit I was a little disappointed not to get in at Le Manor, however I took the opportunity to book for my birthday in November. Looking the Brasserie Blanc up online, Raymond says
I am often asked what a Brasserie Blanc really is, well if the Manoir is a delicate waltz then the Brasseries are the Can Can.
I pictured a rambunctious French cafe, and thought it was hardly likely to be found in England no matter how hard you try. Now, you must remember that, I have spent years in France , and I know French Cuisine. I am not fooled by francophiled English food and bad British service.. so I arrived highly sceptical of a good meal.

The instant we arrived the waiter greeted me like an old regular, and to my childish delight there was a balloon wishing us happy anniversary on the table. The room was light, airy and spacious, without feeling crowded, and yet intimate even at lunch time. I looked around with an ever critical eye. The place was spotless.

Two glasses of real champagne arrived, unbidden, along with some French bread. Ah ha. They never get the bread right I told Al. I ate my words - literally. The starters arrived; my chicken liver parfait was just that. Parfait. With toasted bread the warm crunch, buttery softness and sweet mellow onion chutney was an absolutely sublime marriage of texture and flavour.
The lamb shoulder was aromatic and tender with just the right amount of seasoning. I expected the vegetables to have suffered the fate of death by long cooking process. Not so. The carrots, in particular, were tender, bright and fresh. This meal was, so far, faultless.
The view by the window seats meant we could watch the world going by.
Observing the staff interacting and serving other customers I was stuck by their professionalism. These waiters and waitresses were seriously in tune with everything going on at every table, in a totally discrete manner. Nothing went unnoticed, except them.

Feeling somewhat relaxed and unwilling to finish my meal in any hurry we ordered a sweet. Alastair was enjoying the meal, more than he normally does, perhaps partially down to the fact that I had nothing to find fault with for once. This is a new experience for him. I am a nightmare to take out. As a former chef and one time waitress, there is nowhere I am more critical than in a restaurant.

The Chocolate soufflé and pistachio ice cream arrived. It looked seriously impressive. The top was caramelised, and dusted in icing sugar, the middle soft and voluptuous and the bottom dense and gloriously chocolaty. Eaten with the pistachio ice cream the flavours blended creating a perfect contrasting combination of cold cream and oozing warm chocolate. It was a superb sweet, don’t get me wrong.. but it could be improved on. The soufflé could have done with a tad more sugar. Not much .. just a little. The ice-cream was, on its own single dimensional. My suggestion would be that a cardamom base behind the pistachio would take it up another level and add some top notes between the chocolate and pistachio, and finally, I was a spoon of ice cream short .. just a tiny bit more needed next time

I finished the meal acknowledging that Monsieur Le Blanc had indeed done what I believed impossible. He has brought a real French brasserie to England, every tiny detail and aspect, right down to the apron and even the attitude worn by my waitress.

As I asked one of the waiters for a copy of the menu, as I wanted to write up the meal on my blog, assuring him that it was indeed a wonderful meal we had eaten. He smiled and suggested I tell Raymond myself. There... eating a meal right behind us was Raymond Blanc, his beautiful partner, Natalia and guests. You can imagine my absolute delight as the waiter interrupted Raymond’s meal to ask if I might say hello and Raymond sign a menu? I grinned insanely at my unbelievable luck and chattered nonstop in a jabber of nervous French .. explaining, without pausing for breath, that I am writing a book, and that I follow him on twitter, ( yes.. I honestly said that .. Duh!) and that I will be visiting Le Manoir in November. I did forget to tell him about the variety of pumpkin I grew that he recommeded.

Despite having his family lunch interrupted unexpectedly, Monsieur Le Blanc was charming..... No.... He was more than charming, he was the perfect French gentleman, asking his colleague to take a photo of us and writing good luck with the book and à bientôt on my menu. Can you dream up any better ending to Lunch ? Parfait. À bientôt.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Caraway and Orange Pumpkin Soup

I am always initially slightly intimidated by squashes. They look burly and tough. Nevertheless you couldn’t fail to be impressed with the fabulous team of pumpkins that have returned from the allotment today. There are assorted sizes of various odd shaped orange balls, yellow saucers and green giants with tough waxy skins that are part of their appeal. With the recent rain they have beefed up enough to get to an impressive size and I welcomed them home the shelves in the laundry to be stored for use over the coming months. My husband is so proud of them.. and rightly so, for they are magnificent and they do play a major part of our autumn food stash. Of course the reality is that pumpkins are actually soft and buttery once cooked, but I have to remind myself of that. They make super soup, fabulous pies and are great just roasted and tossed in herbs and butter, and with some zest added these will work really well in combination in the caraway chapter.

The two eldest children have been to the seaside with my parents for the weekend. I expected them to be worn out so I decided to tackle the roast pumpkin soup recipe today. Alastair and isobel prepared the squash for the oven, whilst I watched them for a moment; Daughters's little hands held the squashes with reverence, whilst my husband coated them with olive oil. Her big blue eyes followed every move with wonder. In those few still moments concentrating on the transformation, she was filled with wonder. It is such a treat to watch her thought process. What magic - this thing was to become soup!

The pumpkins looked far less intimidating once they resembled giant leftover orange skins from a rugby match. I salted them and roasted them for forty five minutes. Their tough exterior melted and caramelised. Exposed to a constant gentle dry heat that softens and sweetens them, the fruit developed a depth of flavour that becomes the base for a mellow soup. Deep orange with citrus overtones and caraway undertones this is a sweet autumnal soup, perfect for children. What could be more comforting than a steaming bowl of pumpkin soup when you’ve been at the beach all day? I am happy. My Children are home and I have another recipe ready for the book.

1.8 kg of pumpkin
2 tablespoons of olive oil
Zest of one unwaxed orange
2 tablespoons of caraway seeds
Pinch of salt
125ml of single cream
300ml of water

Chop the pumpkin into quarters. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Transfer the pumpkin to a medium oven fan oven and roast for 45 minutes.
Allow the pumpkin to cool for a few minutes then scoop the flesh into a blender with the orange zest. Using a pestle and mortar grind the caraway seeds up and add to the blender. Add 300 ml of warm water and blend. You can adjust the consistency to your liking, but I prefer mine thick served warm with crusty bread and sprinkled with black pepper and parsley.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Discovering a Local Plum Orchard

Each of the chapters in Prepped follows a flavour. Researching into the flavour is part of the background, and the fun, of writing this book. These next few weeks I shall be working on plums. Their round shiny, smooth skin giving way to sweet succulent orange flesh, they are summer lusciousness itself. Of course I know that there are Victoria plums, but aside from that I’ve never given much thought to which varieties make the best cooking .. so to find out more I thought I’d find a local orchard. After 2 hours of searching on the internet, and several phone calls to find a plum orchard anywhere .. at all ... in Northamptonshire I gave up. Instead I called Mansfield Farm in Kent. They grow about 8 varieties of plum and supply Waitrose. Craig, the manager was more than helpful and despite a protest from my husband, we were due to drive to Kent this weekend, to meet Craig and find out more about plums. Luckily for Alastair, I was complaining about lack of local fruit to Mrs Smith in our nearby farm shop, when she smiled and said that I needed to go and see Andy at New Creation Farm – just 5 miles away. I was, of course, a little disappointed not to be meeting with Craig, he sounded so interesting. However, I was seriously delighted to discover a local orchard. Andy kindly agreed to give me a special tour of the orchards and rather than just take photos I decided to try and share some of the visit with you. Forgive the home video approach, I am new to this side of things, but I hope you will enjoy the footage despite this. Thank you Andy, I shall be returning bearing plum food gifts soon.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Plum Jam recipe

Plums. Their smooth tight skin wrapped around sweet oval flesh, are just coming into season. This year we have a glut. With gloriously overloaded plum trees, if you are lucky enough to have a friend or neighbour to ask, then you can return a pot or two of jam as a thank you. There are all types of plum, and any will do for this recipe. Of course there is the Victoria plum and Green Gages, and you can find locally grown ones in the farm shops, but if you explore a little further into the countryside you may be lucky and discover a Mirabelle or Damson tree. It’s worth checking with the owner’s first, but generally people would prefer to see them made into jam, than get eaten by the wasps. It’s also is worth looking out for their delicious cousins nectarines and peaches, which will also make a superb jam using the same recipe below. These sleek round shiny fruit really do make the most scrumptious jam. What could be better than a cup of hot tea and spooning plum jam over hot buttered toast in the morning?

1.5kg of Plums (stones removed)
1.1kg Jam sugar

Heat the oven on 150 Celsius/ gas mark 2/ 300F
Pop a plate into the fridge
Put the jars (not the lids) in to the oven
Place the chopped Plums in to a large pan. Cover and stir occasionally for about 8 minutes.
Once the consistency is soft add the sugar and dissolve.
The jam then needs 10 – 15 minutes on a rolling bubble. Stir occasionally.
Remove jam jars from the oven.
As the jam boils scoop off any froth like soaps to improve the jam’s clarity. No more than half a cup of froth. When the jam coats the back of the metal spoon it is ready to test. The best test to see if the jam will set is the wrinkle test. Remove the pot from the heat whist you test. Put a small amount of the jam on the cold saucer from the fridge. After minute or so the jam should be cool and wrinkle a little, as you run your finger through the centre.
If not, simply return to the boil and repeat this test in another 2 – 3 minutes.
Whilst still hot ladle the jam into the hot jars using a jam funnel or small jug. Put the lids on after a minute as the heat from the jam will ensure the lids are sterilised. Careful l not to burn yourself and don’t worry if the jar lid is not done up tightly. You can tighten them further when the jars have cooled down. Makes five 1lb jars
I get my jam jars from a super company at
Linked recipes
Lamb Shanks

Friday, 13 August 2010

Spiced Tomato Jam

A very jammy Friday afternoon. I just love the John Griff show .. especially when I am the guest. He’s fun, witty and interesting to talk to and for those of you who know me.. you will appreciate how I love to chat about food. So it’s just up my street. For those of you who listened in and wonder what a Mirabelle looks like click here. The tomato jam recipe is below, and I shall post the rhubarb jam recipe over the weekend. For any of you who missed the show click here to listen again .. you can listen for just one week . so that's 20th August the show starts after 13 minutes .. enjoy listening .. and do please post a comment .. I'd love to hear what people think.

Just a quick note to the chap Cecil, who called in to the show regarding Bullace Plums . They are a Green Damson and are larger and more oval that the mirabelle ..they are also known as known Wild Damson or Bolas, or sometimes Bullions. Mirabelle are otherwise known as cherry plums and come in both plum colour and yellow. They all make excellent jam.

In the mean time a burst of sweet summer tomatoes and aromatic Indian spices gives this spiced tomato jam just the right balance of sweet intensity. I recommend a large dollop served with a hunk of cheddar cheese, fresh baked bread and a green salad, for a classic ploughman’s, alternatively, it works seriously well smothered on top of a juicy beef burger for your next barbeque.

You can of course blend your own spices, but for those of you like me, who haven’t the time, I suggest using an Indian spice blend called Garam Masala.

It pays to be particular about this spice mix. Do not buy an own brand version with dried onion or garlic powder as one of the foremost ingredients. It will be revolting. Powdered onion has no place in Garam Masla. Instead opt for a true Asian blend, keeping your eyes on the star ingredients of Cardamom, nutmeg, pepper, star anise, cinnamon and cloves. Don’t be tempted to drag an old pot out of the back of the cupboard, it will be dull. These vibrant spices are at their best fresh from the pack.

Finally do have a go at this, especially if you have never made jam before. There is nothing complicated about boiling a few ingredients in a pan and then pouring the content of the pan into jam jars.
Cooking & prep time 40 minutes
Clear up time 8 minutes.


1. Large Jam pan or heavy pan
2. Jam funnel (or small jug to ladle and pour the jam into jars )
3. Wooden spoon,
4. Tablespoon
5. 10 clean jam jars & lids. Pound jars are best
6. Ladle
7. Cold saucer


1.5kg of Chopped Tomatoes with Skins removed *
4 level tablespoons of Garam Masala
1Kg Jam sugar
Juice & Zest of 2 fresh limes
1 table spoon of sea salt

One Step ahead
I insist on a clear house and no interruptions when I make jam, and that the kitchen is clutter free. Perhaps this is why I enjoy it so much. Nevertheless it really is best to keep people out of the way when you have fruit and sugar boiling at high temperatures.
Make sure that your pan is large enough. If in doubt, test the pan first with 4 litres of water and that your pan is at that point about half full. The jam needs room to boil.
Have your jars ready to be filled before you start making the jam, they need to be in the hot oven for 10 minutes to sterilise them. It is important that the jars are hot when you pour in the jam because glass can crack if there is a big temperature differential.
Don’t add the sugar in until your fruit has had chance to cook through as the chunks stay chunky.
Wooden spoons sometimes add their own unique flavour to the jam, so take it out between stirs.
If your jam starts to spit turn it down by half and stir you don’t want the jam burning on the bottom of the pan. Bring it back up to temperature when it has calmed down

Put the oven on 150 Celsius/ gas mark 2/ 300 Fahrenheit
Put a Saucer in the fridge
Put the jars (not the lids) in to the oven
Place the chopped Tomatoes and Garam Masala in the pan. Cover with a lid and heat gently for about 5 - 7 minutes. Stir occasionally.
Once the consistency is liquid add the sugar Lime juice & zest and stir. Once the sugar is dissolved then you can bring the jam to the boil. The jam needs about 10 – 15 minutes on a good bubble.
Take the jam jars out of the oven.
As the jam boils remove the froth like soap suds. By removing some of it with a metal spoon it will improve the jam’s clarity, about half a cup of froth is more than enough.
When the jam coats the back of the metal spoon it is ready to test. Possibly the best test if the jam will set is the wrinkle test. Take the pot off the heat while you test, you don’t want to overcook the jam. Pop a teaspoon of jam on the cold saucer from the fridge. After minute and the jam should wrinkle gently, as you run a spoon through the centre.
If it doesn’t, simply return to the boil and repeat this test in another 2 – 3 minutes.
Whilst still very hot ladle the jam into the jars using the jam funnel or jug. After a minute or two put the lids on- the heat from the jam will ensure the lids are sterilised. Watch you don’t burn your fingers and don’t worry if the jar lid is not done up tightly. You can tighten them further when the jars have cooled down. Makes five 1lb jars

*To remove tomato skins make a 2 inch wide cross nicked onto the bottom of the fruit taking care to not cut in to the flesh too deeply. Pop into a saucepan of very hot water for about 45 seconds. You should see the skin curl a little. Lift them out with a large spoon and transfer straight into a bowl of very cold water. Gently ease of the skins with your thumb. If the skins don’t ease away then return the tomatoes to the hot water and repeat the process.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Caraway Rice and Pork Balls with Green Beans

Caramelised pork balls are just fabulous. Biting through, the first sensation is the crunch, then into succulent juicy meat followed by the caraway. If there is one dish I have developed, as I am writing this recipe book that will definitely be a regular on our menu it is this one. Accompanied with dense sweet sticky rice balls . .they are really worth the effort of making at the same time. With similar characteristics to the pork balls the rice is sweetened on the outside and moist in the middle, contrasting in texture.

The green beans add a final crunch and use the favours left in the pan. They also work well cold as a packed lunch the following day, and you can freezer them before cooking, so make some extra!


Pork Balls

450g Minced pork
80g Breadcrumbs
4 tablespoons of sliced almonds
Pinch of salt
One level teaspoon of ground nutmeg
One heaped tablespoon of caraway seeds
3 tablespoons of wok oil
1 chilli
5 heaped tablespoons of plain flour
( 1 small egg ) optional

Green beans
2 finely sliced cloves of garlic
One pack of green beans

Rice Balls

500g Suchi rice
6 cardamom pods
1 medium finely chopped and sautéed onion
2 tablespoons of Caraway seeds
Pinch of salt & a pinch of white pepper
3 garlic cloves very finely chopped.

Method pork balls.

Place all the ingredients except for the oil and the flour into a bowl and mix together well. Form into golf ball size balls and roll in flour before transferring to the pan of the heated wok oil.(Depending on your breadcrumbs you may need extra help binding together the ingredients - mix an egg in well this will ensure they stay together.) Cook on a low to medium heat for about 12 minutes. You must make sure they are cooked all the way through. By keeping the pan temperature moderate you will caramelise the pork so that it is crispy on the outside and succulent inside. Not too hot or they will burn. Not too cool or they will be greasy.

Rice balls

Cook the rice according to the pack instructions with the cardamom pods. Once cold remove the cardamom pods. They have done their job. Add all the other ingredients and mix well. Form into golf size balls using wet hands. For best results use a bowl of water to rinse and wet your hands – as this stops the starch sticking. Follow the method of cooking as above for the pork balls.

Green beans

Top and tail the beans, wash them and then cook together with the garlic in the oil left over in the pan from the pork balls for 5 – 7 minutes. Scatter all of the dishes with finely chopped chillies and Greek basil, and marigold petals if you should have any in the garden.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Salvaged Fallen Mirabelle

I salvaged a basket of fallen Mirabelle yesterday at the side of a quiet country lane. As I arrived home I set to on the computer and totted up the numbers. I realised that there are still 96 more recipes to write up and 50 more to photograph. So there is still a long way to go. The deadline is December.

I am excited today, because I am going to Rococo in Weedon Northamptonshire, where Stephanie and her husband (I have yet to meet him) have a salvage yard. I’d like to have some pictures of one of the salad recipes on white washed aged floor boards. I know exactly what I want the photo to look like. I, or rather Bunny and I, will need to chop and saw and drill to get a small working floorboard prop for my mocked up studio in the lounge. I am however wondering how I am to get a reclaimed floor board back home in my car. There is a comedy moment looming. What treasure I will find .. and what fun.
In the mean time - I am about to cook a Mirabelle pie, as a thank you to Stephanie for allowing me to use her yard as a shoot location. These Mirabelle, rescued from the roadside,are so beautiful, bright, plump and shiny.. it almost..almost a shame to cook them.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Whoopie .. pies and Vanilla

Chocolate and Vanilla in any combination is terrific, but when it is combined in a biscuity cake sandwiching soft folds of whipped vanilla cream it is heavenly. Any good quality vanilla paste would do for this Whoopie Pie recipe; however, I do have a preference for Ndali vanilla, which my sister introduced me to several years ago. It is a little more expensive than other vanilla, but not much .. and to be truthful ,any really great cook will tell you that half the taste experience is in the quality of the ingredients, so the little bit extra is well worth it. Given a choice I prefer fair-trade and organic products, but I am also realistic in that some ingredients are not always available or affordable. With one of the chapters in the book dedicated to vanilla I wanted to get the very best from the flavour so I contacted Lulu, the owner of the Ndali Vanilla estate in Africa to see if she would help me out. I was absolutely delighted when she agreed. Originally from nearby Oxford she has an amazing story to tell, inheriting the vanilla plantation out of the blue about seven years ago. Whichever vanilla you buy it’s worth checking out her site.
As a box of darkest, sweetest delicious vanilla pods arrived straight from Uganda, arrived it was just in time to play with the taste combinations for the latest must have Whoopie Pie phenomenon from America. Originating from the Amish people in Pennsylvania, women made these chocolate mounds with butter icing sandwiched between them from their husbands. The husbands would be so pleased to find it in their lunch box they would shout whoopie .. which was exactly what I shouted as I was opening the beautiful box packed with Ndali vanilla pods. Whoopie!

Chocolate and Vanilla Whoopie Pie Recipe


120g of butter
200g of vanilla sugar or caster sugar & 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
2 medium eggs
280grams of SR flour 4 large heaped tbsp of cocoa powder
Pinch of salt
250ml of buttermilk

1 Level teaspoon of vanilla paste
3 tablespoons of icing sugar
300 ml of double cream


Preheat heat the oven to Gas 4/350 F/ 180C
Grease two baking trays.
In a bowl combine the dry ingredients.
In a separate bowl beat the sugar and butter until pale and fluffy and then add the eggs. Add the dry ingredients and the Buttermilk and combine the ingredients. You should be left with a relatively stiff mixture ready to spoon onto the baking tray in round bite size blobs. To get 16 pies you will need 32 of these.
Bake in the oven for 10 – 12 minutes. They are a cross between a biscuit and a sponge, however there is a fine line between biscuit and burnt because of the high sugar content, so don’t leave them in too long. I found a much better bite to them if I left them in the oven to cool, but if you haven’t time transfer cool on a wire rack.
Add in the teaspoon of vanilla paste and icing sugar to the cream and whip. Make sure the cream is a nice thick consistency before sandwiching a dollop between the chocolate cakes. There you have a taste of America - 16 chocolate and vanilla Whoopie Pies.

I've been caught on Video judging Curry Chef of the Year!