Out with the rage

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When did we all get so cross? We are, it seems, in a permanent state of outrage. A quick glance across various social media platforms suggests that to be disgusted is no longer the preserve of those living in a Spa town in the South East of England – it is now the default setting of the entire nation, nay the entire species.

We are a seething mass of hot-headed indignation, not just with regard to the big ticket stuff – (Trump, Brexit, Scottish independence, the price of courgettes) but, if Twitter is anything to go by, about EVERYTHING, from news that “ex-drug fiend” Noel Fielding is to host the new Bake Off, to Ronaldo’s laughable bust (pun entirely intended), to the fact that Nestle is changing the recipe for KitKat to make it ‘healthier’. (“Stop messing with our chocolate.”) Red faced emojis all around.

Whatever you do don’t mess with a recipe. That’s when we get our Twitter knickers in a right old twist. Just the other week national treasure Mary Berry got it in the neck for what were considered controversial additions to her bolognese sauce. One tweeter (or twit?) said they were “shocked and appalled” and another switched off because Mary used, no not a jar of Dolmio, but white wine and cream in her sauce (Italians often use white wine and add milk to their ragus so hardly controversial). Jamie Oliver received similar flak from Spanish twits last autumn with his take on paella. “Your paella is an abomination,” wrote one. “An insult not only to our gastronomy but to our culture,” added another. Jamie only added chorizo, for crying out loud, not a tin of baked beans.

This level of fury over food I just don’t get. The truth is, there is no such thing as an ‘authentic’ recipe. What people put in their bolognese or paella, or Shepherd’s pie for that matter, will differ from household to household, from region to region, from one generation to the next. Ingredients will be added and omitted according to what’s in season, what’s in the cupboard and, certainly in my household, what the kids will or won’t eat. It is essential for recipes to evolve lest we all die of boredom, both in the cooking and in the eating. Cooking is about trial and error, creativity, putting your own mark on a dish – that way great food combinations are discovered. And there is no right or wrong – except maybe baked beans in paella – as long as it tastes good.

All the Jamies, Marys and Nigellas of this world want, as well as for you to buy their books and merch of course, is to encourage people to have a go at cooking, from scratch, at home. They don’t care if you swap sage for oregano, leave out the mushrooms, or use a stock cube rather than the real thing – much rather that, than give up altogether and call in a pizza.

If people feel intimidated by recipes, or fear doing it wrong, they won’t bother to cook at all which is not only a great shame but also has major implications for our health. According to food writer and all-round good egg Michael Pollan, if there’s one thing that can be done to improve a nation’s health it is for people to take back control over what they eat by cooking. “Cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet. What matters most is not any particular nutrient, or even any particular food: it’s the act of cooking itself,” he says. “It’s the collapse of home cooking that led directly to the obesity epidemic.”

A third of our children are overweight or obese, two thirds of adults are the same and yet we spend less time in our kitchens than ever before. And that, my friends, is an outrage.

Coq au Vin

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On that note, here is my not entirely authentic take on Coq au Vin. I do not use a rooster, I do not use red Burgundy (any bottle of bog standard red will do), I add a bit of port and I do not marinate the bird in the wine overnight. Do your worst Twitter…

Serves 6

  • 6 whole chicken legs (ie. thighs and drums)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil plus 1 knob of butter
  • 2 large carrots, washed and cut into rough chunks
  • 2 onions or 6 banana shallots, roughly chopped
  • 2 sticks of celery, roughly chopped
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree
  • 2 bay leaves
  • a couple of sprigs of thyme and rosemary
  • 1 bulb of garlic cut in half horizontally
  • 2 strips of orange peel (if you have it)
  • a glug of brandy and port (again, if you have it)
  • 1 bottle (750ml) red wine
  • 40g cold unsalted butter, to finish (optional)
  • salt and pepper
  • to garnish: button mushrooms, bacon lardons, shallots, chopped flat leaf parsley
  1. Heat the oil and butter in a wide, lidded pan. I use this one from Jamie O and it’s perfect for the job (I’m not being paid by him, honest.)
  2. Season the chicken legs all over and fry skin side down over a medium/high heat until the skin is golden brown (about 10 minutes). Flip the legs over and cook for a further five minutes on the other side. Remove and set aside on a plate, leaving the fat in the pan.
  3. Fry the onion, carrots and celery in the same pan until beginning to caramelise (this adds flavour), then stir in the tomato puree and cook for a few minutes until the veg is a brick red colour.
  4. Add the brandy and port and let it bubble a way for a couple of minutes, then bung the herbs and orange zest into the pan. Return the chicken to the pan, skin side up and arranged so there is no overlapping, nestle the halves of garlic bulb between the chicken, then carefully pour in the bottle of wine. It should cover 3/4 of the chicken, leaving the skins on the top of the legs exposed. If there is not enough wine, top up to this level using a little chicken stock or water.
  5. Bring to the boil on the hob, cover the pan and place in the oven for 1 1/2 hours at 170°C or until the joints in the bone give without resistance when bent. The meat should be almost falling off the bone.
  6. When cooked, remove the chicken legs once again and set aside, and strain the sauce into a large bowl using a sieve, giving all the veg a good squeeze to get maximum flavour into the sauce. Skim off the fat from the sauce (a gravy separator like this one would be useful here) and return the sauce to the original pan.
  7. Put the pan back on the heat and reduce the sauce until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon ie. like a thickish gravy. Taste and add a dash of port if it needs more sweetness, a tiny splash of red wine vinegar if it needs acidity and salt if necessary.
  8. For a luxurious, shiny finish to the sauce, whisk in cubes of unsalted butter one or two at a time. Return the chicken to the pan and heat through.
  9. Fry the lardons until crisp in a little butter, remove, then add the shallots to the pan. Cook until soft and golden, then add the mushrooms. When cooked, scatter the shallots, lardons and mushrooms over the chicken along with some chopped flat leaf parsley. Serve with mash and greens of your choice.

Carbo embargo

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There’s nothing like a host of perky daffodils to alert oneself to the fact that it will soon be time to peel off those winter layers and expose bits of one’s less than perky body to the world. It’s no coincidence then that it’s at precisely this time of year that I find myself dabbling in a spot of dietary faddism.

I know, I know. Diets don’t work and the more faddy the diet, the higher the failure rate. Eliminate stuff that you love from your diet and you will crave it with magnified intensity. Ergo the Teen who declared he was going custard cream-free for Lent is faring rather less well than his brother who is avoiding brussel sprouts. No shit.

Still, despite my better judgement I decided about a month ago, upon catching sight of my mottled purple (yes, purple) flesh in the mirror, to forego all carbs – refined or otherwise. I’m not talking old-school low carbing popular in the early Noughties: fry-up for breakfast; steak and cheese for lunch; a cup or two of double cream for tea; a cardiac arrest for supper. No mine’s more like the Mediterranean diet, just without the croissants… or baguettes… or pasta… or fruit. *sighs*

The science bit goes that the body, starved of access to its most readily available fuel – carbohydrate – will turn to stores of body fat to burn for energy. Or something like that. Not sure I really care as long as it works.

Trouble is, it isn’t, or at least not very quickly. So far I’ve shifted a measly few pounds, which I probably would’ve lost anyway due to the fact that Spring has sprung and there are no more Christmas chocolates to be had. But while such slow progress would normally have me diving off the wagon face first into a bowl of fettuccine, I’ve decided to stick with this way of eating for the time being, simply because I feel better for it: no surging sugar highs or post-lunch slumps, fewer mood swings and crucially, no hunger pangs. There’s no faffing with separate meals – I just leave the carbs off my plate and replace with more salad or veg. And I’m not really missing them (although oddly it’s beans and pulses I miss the most) – if anything meals taste better without being diluted by carb’s inherent blandness.

I still don’t think extreme elimination diets are sustainable or even healthy in the long term (unless there is a medical reason to follow one) so I intend to knock myself out with the odd chickpea once I have reached my target weight, but in the meantime it’s meat, fish, cheese, nuts, veg and eggs. A great many eggs.

Shakshuka

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Shakshuka is the Middle Eastern equivalent of Mexican huevos rancheros, eggs poached in a spicy tomato pepper stew. It’s great any time of the day and goes particularly well with merguez sausages, chorizo or fried halloumi. This is the way I do it.

Serves 4 (approx 14g carbs per portion, in case you were wondering)

  • 1 tsp caraway seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 banana shallots or 1 red onion, finely sliced
  • 1 red pepper, seeded and finely sliced
  • 1 medium aubergine, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika (sweet or hot)
  • 1 tsp harissa
  • 1 tbsp Turkish red pepper paste or tomato puree
  • 2 400g tins plum tomatoes
  • 4-8 eggs depending on appetite
  • 50g feta cheese
  • handful of chopped parsley or coriander
  • salt and pepper
  1. Heat the oil in a large ovenproof frying pan over a medium flame and fry the caraway and cumin seeds for 1 minute, then add the shallots, pepper and aubergine and fry gently for 15 minutes until all the vegetables are softened.
  2. Add the garlic and fry for another minute, then the spices and fry for a further minute.
  3. Add the harissa and paste and stir to coat all the veg. Cook for a couple of minutes before adding the tomatoes. Crush the tomatoes with a potato masher or fork, bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the sauce is thick and rich. Taste and season. (You can make the stew in advance to this stage – it will keep for a week in the fridge. Simply heat through when you need it and continue to next step).
  4. Preheat the oven to 200°C (fan). Make indentations in the sauce and crack an egg into each one. Sprinkle over the feta cheese and bake in the oven until the whites of the eggs are set, leaving the yolks runny. This always takes longer than you think – at least 15 minutes. (You can also continue to cook on the hob if you prefer. Cover the pan once you have added the eggs (the feta will not melt if you use this method)).
  5. Remove pan from oven, scatter over the herbs and serve with crusty bread or pittas, that is presuming you are not on some silly fad diet.
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Can be made in individual portions (I did not eat this bread)

When life gives you lemons…

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It’s Tuesday, it’s late February and Ocado is clean out of lemons. This can mean only one thing…it’s pancake day. Presuming you don’t need me to tell you how to make pancakes (what’s that?…a recipe?…of course, here you go: 110g flour, 1 egg, 1 yolk, 300ml milk, pinch salt, butter for frying, you’re welcome), I thought instead I would offer a suggestion for what to do with all those leftover lemons should your family be anything like mine and eschew this old school topping for something more fancy (ham and gruyere (the husband), salted caramel hazelnut chocolate spread (the teen), squirty cream, although as a weapon rather than a foodstuff (the 10yo).

You could of course make lemonade, or a classic lemon drizzle cake, but if you have a glut of lemons to use up, I urge you to try this which I made for the teen’s birthday last week, essentially a mash up between an Italian lemon polenta cake and the aforementioned drizzle. Its use of ground almonds instead of flour makes it incredibly rich, moist, moreish and, well yes, calorific (but highly nutritious, no?) and means it will keep for up to a week in an airtight container. Except it will never last that long.

Lemon polenta drizzle cake

This recipe is based on one from the original River Cafe Cookbook by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, but their recipe makes enough to feed a small army, so I have reduced the quantities and finished the cake off with a good dousing of lemony syrup. Serve as is, or with some creme fraiche or natural yogurt, sweetened with a little icing sugar and a drop of vanilla bean paste or extract, and an artful scattering of berries.

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Makes one 20cm diameter cake (10-12 portions)

  • 300g unsalted butter, softened
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 300g ground almonds
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
  • 4 eggs
  • zest of 2 1/2 lemons
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 150g polenta (I used the quick cook stuff and it worked just fine)
  • 1 tsp baking powder (use gluten free and the whole cake will be)
  • 1/4 tsp salt

For the drizzle

  • 100g caster sugar
  • juice of 1 lemon
  1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (fan), butter a 20cm cake tin and line the base with baking parchment.
  2. Beat the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy then stir in the almonds and vanilla.
  3. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then fold in the lemon zest and juice, the polenta, baking powder and salt.
  4. Spoon into tin, smooth over the top and bake in the oven for about 50 mins until the cake is set (ie. no wobble) and rich golden brown in colour. Leave in tin to cool.
  5. To make the syrup, heat the sugar and lemon juice in a pan over a medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Simmer briefly until the syrup thickens a little, but do not boil.
  6. Prick the top of the cake all over with a skewer or fork and drizzle the syrup all over its surface. Remove from tin and enjoy.

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Wine not?

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I LOVE cooking with wine. It’s my second favourite thing to do with it. (There isn’t a third.)

A glass of white in your risotto, a splash of port in your gravy, a flagon of red in your beef stew – pop, glug, splosh, bubble – and dinner is elevated to the next level. A drop of the good stuff (or, dare I say, even the not-so-good stuff) adds acidity, depth of flavour and brings out umami in a dish in a way that a squeeze of lemon or a dash of stock cannot. It allows you to create food that not only satisfies the belly, but warms right through to the soul. What’s more, cooking with wine makes your home smell incredible – like you’ve walked into one of those idyllic roadside bistros in rural Southern France – one odour I don’t mind lingering in my soft furnishings.

There are, however, a couple of commonly held views about cooking with wine with which I – possibly controversially – disagree. The first is that you must only ever cook with wine that you would be happy to drink. While I possess a degree of snobbery discernment when it comes to the wine I quaff, I do not feel the same about stuff I’m going to bung in a stew, unless of course it’s a special occasion or I’m feeding someone with a chef’s palate. I have, on more than one occasion, made a pretty decent fist at boeuf bourguignon using a variety of past-it dregs from bottles that have been gathering on the windowsill for well over a week. The same goes for a perfectly palatable coq-(not)-au-riesling I made recently with a bottle of Pinot Grigio Blush (a ‘gift’), which was anything but palatable in its original state.

I have my standards, of course (although my bar is set quite low). If the wine smells like it would be better suited to a plate of chips than to the pot I won’t use it, and if it is corked to start with, I have learned (albeit the hard way) that no amount of cooking, reducing or seasoning will stop the end dish from smelling and tasting like a stagnant pond.

But wine is expensive – the average price per bottle is now north of a fiver – so I say keep the good stuff for drinking (saving, or even freezing any leftovers) and buy a cheap wine box which can sit happily in the back of a cupboard for months for all your culinary needs (or for moments of emergency self-medication when the wine rack is bare).

Then there’s the issue of using wine in dishes that may (or let’s face it, may not) be eaten by kids. ‘Just leave it out,’ advises Jamie O. But why? Of the kids I know who are happy to have their protein ‘contaminated’ by a sauce, many appreciate that unique tang that booze brings without being consciously aware of its presence (my teen would probably eat a shoe if it was smothered in a sauce made with marsala, while the 10yo is positively addicted (poor choice of word?) to brandy-laced peppercorn sauce). I can understand it might be viewed as questionable parenting to feed a boozy trifle to a five-year-old, but in hot dishes the cooking process does away with any alcohol. And if it doesn’t, what’s the worst that can happen? Happy, giggly, but – very quickly – sleepy kids.

And if all that hasn’t put you off dinner or playdates at mine, I don’t know what will.

Wine-braised chicken with juniper

This dish, based on one I found years ago in The Guardian by Hugh F-W, is simple and quick enough to make for a weekday supper but the addition of juniper gives it an unusual and sophisticated flavour, making it perfect for a dinner party. The juniper also makes it smell like gin. Win, win. (Anyone got the number for AA?)

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Serves 4-6

  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 heaped tbsp flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
  • 1 chicken, jointed into 8, or about 1.5kg of chicken legs/breasts
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, bashed (don’t worry about removing skins)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sprig rosemary
  • a couple of sprigs of thyme
  • 1 tbsp juniper berries, lightly crushed
  • splash marsala (sweet fortified wine) (optional)
  • 500ml white wine
  • 300ml chicken stock
  • 1-2 heaped tbsp full fat creme fraiche (or a generous splash of double cream)
  • 1 tsp dijon mustard
  • salt and pepper
  • chopped flat leaf parsley to garnish
  1. Put the seasoned flour in a large freezer bag, tip in the chicken and give it a good shake until the chicken is lightly coated (skip this stage if you are low carbing or gluten free).
  2. Heat half the oil on a high heat in a large heavy-based pan or casserole and brown the chicken, in batches if necessary, until golden on all sides. Transfer to a plate.
  3. Turn down the heat to medium, add a splash more oil to the pan, then add the onion, herbs and garlic and cook gently for 10 minutes, until the onion is soft and translucent.
  4. Add the marsala (if using) and wine and let them simmer for a few minutes, scraping off any caramelised bits from the bottom of the pan, then add the stock and the juniper berries. Bring to the boil and then simmer for a further five minutes.
  5. Return chicken, skin side up, to the pan, and braise, partially covered, on a low heat for 25-30 mins until the chicken is cooked through.
  6. Remove the chicken once more, then strain the sauce through a sieve and return it to the pan (you can skip this step but I prefer a smooth sauce, as the flavour of a bitten juniper berry can be a little overpowering). Reduce a little then add the creme fraiche and mustard then reduce a little more so the sauce has the consistency of single cream.
  7. Return the chicken to the pan, warm through and scatter with parsley. Serve with mash or flat pasta noodles such as pappardelle or tagliatelle and greens of your choice.

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Friday night fodder

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I’ve been having myself a little break from writing. I was taught that if you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all, and there has been nothing in the least bit good about January.

But January is over. There is warmth in the air, the birds are chirping and the little spears of green poking through the soil in my flowerbeds tell me the 67 bulbs I planted very late in the season (ie the day before Christmas eve) haven’t all died or been stolen by squirrels.

And it’s Friday. And that means one thing in my house: quesadillas.

Quesadillas with guacamole

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The perfect Friday night food is quick to make, indulgent in flavour and easy to eat, preferably with hands, in front of the telly. A quesadilla is essentially a fancy toasted cheese sandwich into which you can bung all manner of good things. Here’s what I usually put in mine…

Serves 4

  • 1 pack soft tortillas – I’m liking wholewheat at the moment, but you could use white or corn
  • 2 large handfuls of cold leftover meat, chopped – chicken, pork or beef work well
  • 2 handfuls of cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
  • 1 ball mozzarella, diced
  • 1 small bunch coriander, leaves and stalks, chopped
  • 1/2 red pepper, finely diced
  • 3-4 spring onions, finely sliced
  • 1 red chilli, deseeded if you don’t like too much heat and finely chopped
  • sour cream (optional)

For the guacamole

  • 1/4 red onion, very finely chopped
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 2 ripe avocados
  • 1 tbsp chopped coriander
  • salt
  1. First make the guacamole by macerating the chopped onion in the lime juice and a pinch of salt in a bowl for 10 minutes, then add the avocado and mash to a rough puree with a fork (or use a mortar and pestle). Taste and add more salt or lime juice if necessary then stir in the chopped coriander.
  2. Then mix all the filling ingredients in a large bowl with your hands.
  3. Smear one half moon of the tortilla with sour cream (if using, but I often leave this out) and scatter over a small handful of the filling (don’t be tempted to overfill otherwise you will have problems with the ooze) then fold over the other half. Repeat until all tortillas are filled. img_2473
  4. Heat a large heavy-bottomed frying pan on a medium high heat and toast the tortillas in batches (no oil necessary) until golden brown on each side by which point the cheese should have melted. Remove to a chopping board and cut each into thirds or halves depending on how big you want them.
  5. Serve with the guacamole, plenty of kitchen roll and a cold beer or two. Gracias Mexico!

Other nice fillings…

  • Roast a selection of root veg (beetroot, parsnip, carrot, sweet potato) with chilli flakes, fennel seeds and salt and pepper until soft and caramelised and then crumble over goat’s cheese or feta.
  • Fry small cubes of potato in a pan until golden, then add some chopped cooking chorizo and cook through. Use this to fill tortillas with mozzarella and a scattering of chopped red pepper and some rocket leaves.
  • Cooked peas, edamame, spring onion, mint, chilli and feta, with a little cheddar to help bind it all together.
  • These chilli beans, with a scattering of cheddar and a dollop of sour cream.

Nachos (not so) grande

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I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Actually, this is a lie. I don’t make resolutions out loud. In my head, however, I spend much of January chanting the mantra: must do better, must do better.

I guess you know the good times have to stop rolling when you are rudely awakened from your night sweat sleep by a cascading crash which you assume are the binmen emptying the bins from the pub next door but is in fact emanating from your very own recycling bin of shame. Or when those red welts appear on your love handles caused by the jeans you used to wear only on ‘fat days’. All that fun you had in December has come at a hefty price and now it’s payback time. (When I say you I do, of course, mean me.)

But does the repayment have to be in a lump sum? Is it really sensible to give up everything that is fun in life for the entirety of January, already the clear favourite in the most miserable month of the year stakes? Doesn’t short term but extreme exclusion – be it for dryathlon, veganuary, carbannihilate, dairytox (I might’ve made up the last two) – simply feed into our unhealthy binge-purge culture, with our yo-yo approach to diets, drinking and the gym? What’s the point of giving up booze/meat/dairy/wheat etc for a month if it means, come February 1st, you dive headfirst into a XL stuffed crust meat feast washed down with a gallon or two of merlot?

If it works for you and you have the self-control not to fall horrendously off the wagon in a month’s time, that’s fine, although I still think the #veganuary thing is absurd – surely veganism is for life not just for post-Christmas? (I had my first ever run in on Twitter this week when I had a pop at this latest fad and was informed by a disgruntled vegan, in a manner that wasn’t at all passive-aggressive, that my children would already be suffering with atherosclerosis, a precursor to heart disease. Which was nice.)

I personally prefer a lazier slower, yet more sustainable approach – the monthly repayment as opposed to the lump sum. Cutting down, cutting back but definitely no cutting out (with the exception of that homemade Baileys – that absolutely has to go). Because deprivation never made anyone happy, and happiness is the cornerstone of good health, no?

Middle Eastern nachos with crispy chickpeas and chopped salad

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I guarantee you will not feel deprived with this healthy take on a Tex-Mex favourite. It is basically a deconstructed Middle Eastern fattoush style salad masquerading as junk food and I would happily eat this over the lardy original any day. It’s as good as a light lunch to share as it is for snacking in front of a film and you can pimp it up as you please, by adding dollops of houmous, toasted pine nuts, slices of avocado or these chilli beans for example. Just don’t tell anyone it’s good for them.

The idea is not mine – there are various versions of this on the internet – but the recipes are.

Serves 2-3 as a light lunch, 4 as nibbles

  • 5-6 pitta breads (I used wholemeal cos, you know, my body is a temple)
  • 1 400g tin chickpeas
  • 1 heaped tsp ground cumin
  • 1 heaped tsp ras el hanout or 1/2 of chilli powder
  • 1/2 onion, finely chopped
  • 8cm piece of cucumber, finely diced
  • 150g tomatoes (I like baby plums), finely diced
  • 100g jarred red peppers, finely chopped, or use fresh
  • 1/2-1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped (best to test how hot it is before adding as they vary enormously)
  • 1/2 small bunch flat leaf parsely, finely chopped
  • 1/2 small bunch mint, finely chopped
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 tsp sumac (optional but adds lemony zing)
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • to serve: 2 tbsp Greek yogurt mixed with 1 tsp tahini, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt; feta cheese
  1. Preheat your oven to 190°C (fan). Drain and rinse the chickpeas then dry them well in kitchen towel (this will stop them from exploding all over your oven). Place them in a baking tray, sprinkle with the cumin, ras el hanout and a pinch of salt, then drizzle over a little olive oil. Toss together to coat, then bake in the oven for 30 mins or until golden and crispy.
  2. Cut your pittas into tortilla chip style triangles, then separate the two layers and place on a large baking sheet. Brush each piece with a little olive oil (you can sprinkle over a little salt and/or smoked paprika too if you feel that way inclined). Bake in the oven alongside the chickpeas for about 5 minutes until crisp (your layers may be of different thickness so the thinner ones may need to be removed before the others are done).
  3. Put the chopped onion in a mixing bowl with the lemon juice and a pinch of salt, stir and leave for 10 minutes – the acid will take the harsh edge off the onion. Then add the cucumber, tomatoes, peppers, chilli, herbs, sumac and a grinding of black pepper. Stir then taste. Add a little more salt or lemon if necessary.
  4. When cool, tip the pitta chips onto a wide plate, spoon over the chopped salad (you may not need all of it), scatter over the crispy chickpeas, drizzle with yogurt, crumble over the feta and remember to share with your family.

 

What to eat (and drink) on Christmas Eve

Sorry, no time to chat, I’m sure you’ll understand. Instead Diana Henry’s recipe for Vietnamese lemongrass and chilli chicken, which I’ve been meaning to post for ages because it’s so good. So good in fact, that each time I have made it, the chaps have snaffled it before I’ve had a chance to take the requisite photo. So, shhh, while they’re not looking, here it is…

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Granted, not a great pic, but it’s so dark all the time

 

Aside from a little marination, the actual cooking is quick and straightforward. It’s what I will be serving up on Christmas Eve, because its zingy sour heat provides a welcome break from seasonal stodge and is the antithesis to anything that will be served up in the days following.

Oh and while I’m at it, I feel duty bound to mention a brilliant recipe for homemade Baileys that has caught my attention on the godmother of all food blogs, Smitten Kitchen. It literally takes minutes to prepare and tastes better than the original – particularly if you are liberal with the booze. So, you take one teaspoon of cocoa powder and one of espresso powder (optional) and stir to a paste with a splash of double cream, then slowly add one cup of double cream, then a can of sweetened condensed milk, a (generous) cup of whiskey (Irish would be authentic but I used bourbon and man, it was good) and a splash of vanilla extract. Whisk it all together, decant into bottles or jam jars and hey presto, you have instant homemade Christmas gifts, or at least a drink guaranteed to smooth the process of wrapping all those presents. It keeps for about two weeks in the fridge, but I’ll wager it won’t last that long. You’re welcome.

A very Merry Christmas to you all. Thank you for reading.

Vietnamese lemongrass and chilli chicken

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This is from the perpetually useful A Bird In the Hand by Diana Henry, a must for anyone who, like me, struggles to come up with new and interesting ideas for the ubiquitous bird.

Serves 4

  • 800g boneless chicken (thighs work best but use breasts if you must) cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 2 stalks of lemongrass, tough outer layers discarded and finely chopped
  • 4 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 1/2 tbsp caster sugar
  • 2 red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 2 tbsp flavourless oil (e.g. sunflower)
  • 1 onion halved and cut into thin half moons
  • 125ml chicken stock
  • juice of 1/2-1 lime
  • sesame seeds, sliced spring onion, sliced chilli, chopped coriander to garnish
  1. Put the chicken into a bowl with half the chopped lemongrass and half the chopped chilli, reserving the rest for later. Add the sugar, fish sauce and garlic and stir to coat the chicken pieces. Cover with clingfilm and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least four hours.
  2. Bring the chicken to room temperature before cooking. Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan over a medium heat and brown the chicken on all sides (do this in batches if necessary). You want it to take on a good caramel colour at this stage.
  3. Add the reserved chilli and lemongrass with the onion and stir fry until the onion begins to soften. Pour in the stock and let it bubble away until the chicken is cooked through and the stock has slightly reduced. Diana says it should be wetter than a stir fry but drier than a braise.
  4. Add the lime juice then check that the balance for sweet and sour is to your liking and adjust with lime juice or sugar accordingly. Garnish and serve with steamed rice and a side of stir-fried broccoli. Baileys chaser optional.