Usually, I’m shit at making salads. It ought to be easy, it’s just a bunch of leaves and bits of healthy stuff, but somehow mine tend to turn out like the sort of thing you might create when you get to the office canteen salad bar at 3pm, when most of it has either run out or wilted tragically. This time though, I struck it lucky, having had something almost completely unlike it in a restaurant a while back, but finding myself thwarted in Tesco when I tried to get the ingredients to recreate it. This is what I actually ended up with.

Rocket
Peas
Mange tout
Celery
Beansprouts
Granny Smith apple
A little bit of truffle oil

Cook the peas and mange tout briefly and then plunge them into cold water (pref with ice but it’s not essential. You just want them to be cold and still crisp). Chop the celery and the apple into smallish bitey pieces and mix everything together by hand. Drizzle on the truffle oil and mix again just before serving. You don’t need much but that unique, impossibly smooth metallic aroma has the effect of pulling together the strong, diverse flavours of the apple, celery and rocket while at the same time somehow tempering them. It’s quite a lot like spring on a plate.

PS: I’m slightly obsessed with truffle oil at the moment. It’s pricey, but you need such a tiny amount to stamp its presence on a dish that I’ve had the same bottle for months. Today, a very wee dash went in the pan with a little butter for scrambled eggs, along with a grind or two of pepper and a pinch of sea salt, all scoffed indecently quickly with 2 buttered crumpets and a slice and a half of smoked salmon. Joy. Followed by guilt, and the gym. Whatever.

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During the summer, at a birthday picnic for my friend Liz, I was given a small but ingenious snack which I’ve been meaning to recreate ever since. I’ve always been a big fan of the Great British Sausage Roll and considered them unimproveable, until I tried these little beauties, invented by Liz’s elegant pal Stella. They are simple, but gloriously effective. Be warned, however: six is too many, especially when followed by mince pies and cheese. I spent at least an hour and a half lying in bed on Christmas eve thinking I was going to either be sick or melt into the sheets leaving nothing but a smear of grease.

Stella’s Sausage Swirls

Take one 500g block of ready-made puff pastry (life’s too short for making puff pastry at home, in my humble opinion). Roll it out into a square about 4mm thick. Take about 450g of good quality sausagemeat (we bought it from the brilliant butcher local to my work, Hussey’s of Wapping Lane, which makes its own sausages), give it a good squidge with your hands to mush it up a bit and then, using your fingers, spread it all over the pastry square until it’s broadly evenly covered, leaving a border of raw pastry of about 1cm on one side and about an inch on the other. Then, taking the shorter border as your starting edge, roll the square into a spiral tube, as if making a swiss roll. Brush the wide border with milk and press to seal, then brush the whole thing with milk. Using a very sharp knife, slowly slice into swirls of about 1cm thick and place them flat on a baking tray, leaving a bit of space between them so they can puff up. Stick in a medium oven and cook for a while, I think I did mine for about 40 mins in the end, on about 180ish, but just keep an eye on them after about 20 mins and see how you go. It’s a good idea to err on the medium side and leave them in for longer, as the sausage meat will stay moist, and the pastry is less likely to burn. Remove from the oven, leave to cool for ten minutes or so (no more, you want them warm) then pass round with glasses of dry sherry.

Uova Italia

October 22, 2010

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I get bored with my breakfasts quite often. Today I JUST SNAPPED after about two weeks of spinach and feta omelettes, and raided my cupboards. Which were nearly bare, but as a result I made a pleasing discovery. Which is:

Softly scrambled eggs + basil pesto + grainy toast = breakfast in the Tuscan sun despite evident frost on the rooftops and the dark threat of rain. 

I might try a little stir of harissa next time and see if I can get myself transported to Fez. It would definitely be an improvement on Dalston.

After a hideous week of Frieze art fair, being ill and relaunching the features section of my newspaper, my dear friend L and I escaped the madness on Sunday night and went to Andrew Edmunds. AE is the quintessential Soho establishment – cramped, candlelit, friendly and with a bloody brilliant wine list. The food is very nice, but it’s not really the point – you go for the atmosphere. Having said that, despite the fact that we were too busy bitching to do anything but inhale our dinner, we did pause for a moment to appreciate L’s particularly tasty starter of Gorgonzola and pear risotto, which, having an unexpected night in on Tuesday, I was inspired to recreate. Approximately. It wasn’t completely successful but I think it worked pretty well.

In butter, cook up about half a pear, chopped into modest chunks, on a low heat until softish (about 15-20 mins) then put it aside while you make the rice, which I cooked with a bit of garlic. The garlic might have been unnecessary. Had I had any white wine open I probably would have put a slug in with the stock, which I think would have refined it slightly. When the rice was cooked I stirred in the pear and the cheese – about the same volume as the pear, and a small amount of grated Parmesan. Annoyingly, Waitrose didn’t have any Gorgonzola, darling, so I made do with dolcelatte. It’s not as good, too mild and too soft – Gorgonzola would probably retain its structural integrity a bit more (i.e. not melt) but you get the idea. The key is to then stir in a handful of finely chopped fresh parsley, which lifts all the flavours and stops it from being too cloying. Needless to say I forgot to do this. Still, it gave me very entertaining dreams.

A guilty pleasure

August 27, 2010

I know it’s wrong, but there’s nothing, NOTHING quite like Tuc biscuits liberally slathered with lashings of Laughing Cow. That heavenly combination of salty, flaky wafer and thick, white stickiness that coats the mouth and tastes of nothing but cold is irresistable. I feel like Marie Antoinette in her mock dairy at Versailles – breasts trembling, milk pail swinging, all a-quiver with the wicked, plebian subversion of it all. I know it’s dirty, but no-one can see us down here…

Working in Wapping has its advantages (answers on a postcard as to what these are, and yes, they will fit) but a range of plentiful, good lunch options is not one of them. Recently I’ve started doing a bit of home cooking and bringing lunch to work, rather than working until 3pm and then rushing to Waitrose snarling with hunger and ending up back at my desk with a bizarre selection of unrelated foodstuffs, one of which is nearly always cocktail salamis. Today’s home-made, self-assembly lunch was particularly successful, having cooked the meat last night, though I would say that if you can make and eat it at home, it is even better fresh, because the lamb stays crispy.

Take a pair of scissors to a reasonably sized hunk of lamb – I used scrag, which is unbelievably cheap, but really tricky to get off the bone with shit knives (I ended up stewing the rest of it on the bone overnight – won’t know until tonight whether that little chuck-in-what’s-in-the-cupboard exercise worked or not) and cut it into little tiny pieces. Fry them on a high heat until vaguely crispy. Take a wrap bread or pitta, smear it thickly with humus and chuck on a few strips of cucumber, some halved cherry tomatoes, and tons of fresh parsley and mint (and basil, if you happen to have just bought yet another plant having killed the last one). Pile on the cooked lamb and sprinkle liberally with pomegranate seeds. Roll up as tightly as possible and eat, looking smugly around at your colleagues.

*tip – if making at work, don’t put the wrap in the fridge with the rest of the bits and pieces, because if it gets cold it will become brittle and break.

It’s rare that I post a recipe because I’m almost never at home, but being utterly skint at the moment, I’m trying to avoid eating out for dinner this month (work lunches don’t count, that’s someone else’s money). Thus I’m attempting to recapture my love of cooking. This means inviting people round, because I really can’t be bothered to cook for one. I loathe it: it uses just as many pans, takes just as much time, then you sit down and eat for a maximum of about eight minutes, listening to someone drone on about BP on the radio, then it’s all over and you still have to wash up. It’s like bad sex – boring, messy, unfulfilling and nobody ever says thank you afterwards. So last night B (my landlord) came over to regale me with tales of his own meaningless trysts, and I cooked him dinner. It wasn’t fancy or particularly imaginative, but I made it up, it worked like a dream and so I feel like I’ve discovered a new species. It’s the small things.

Put a massive lump of butter in a pan and melt on a low heat. Add a few cloves of chopped garlic and cook briefly, then add several handfuls of wild mushrooms – slice the big ones but keep the smaller ones whole – and a palm-full of fresh thyme leaves. Season and sweat until the mushrooms are becoming floppy, then remove from the pan and put aside. Using the same pan (mainly out of laziness, and the fact that since I moved house I find myself in possession of an extremely eccentric selection of kitchen equipment), boil and salt some water and cook some linguine. Drain well, put back in the pan, add the herby mushrooms, a palm-full or so of chopped fresh parsley and crumble in a thick slice of goat’s cheese (chevre blanc in this case). Mix together thoroughly then wolf, with a well-chilled bottle of cheap Beaujolais and a dear friend.

A quick BBQ recipe, having been to one last weekend at the house of two friends, where our friend W stole the show with his modest Tupperware of marinated pork fillet. Why I haven’t thought of doing this before I have no idea, but inspired by the Churrascarias of Brazil (BBQ restaurants), he cut it into small, bite-sized slices about the width of a finger and just handed it round as each batch came off the grill, rather than the big chunks of meat you normally do for BBQs. A few seconds on each side and it was done – melting and succulent. This is his glorious marinade recipe: 

2 tbsp fish sauce

juice half a lime

1 tbsp toasted sesame oil

2 stalks lemongrass

2 cloves garlic

1 tsp sugar (palm sugar for pref, or plain caster)

Mix, marinade for at least a good hour, preferably more. Slap on BBQ for a few seconds on either side. Eat before anyone else realises you’re cooking it.

It might sound somewhat off message but bear with me. After sitting in the cinema on my own barely breathing, I had to post something about this new film with Tilda Swinton I Am Love.

SPOILER ALERT. 

It’s the story of a woman, the Russian wife of a stiff Italian industrialist, who embarks on a passionate affair (obviously. Aren’t they always? Isn’t that the point?) with a young chef. Entirely, as far as I can see, because of the way he cooks a prawn. The moment when she tastes the dish he makes for her, slowly sliding her knife (a fish knife, incidentally, the continued use in swanky restaurants of which item of cutlery fills me with red-tinged rage, but that’s another post) through the flesh of the glistening prawn while all the sounds of polite conversation and tinkling china around her fade into the background, is the most evocative expression I have ever seen on film of what happens when you taste something that completely blows your mind. It made me want to go out and find myself a chef, immediately.

On a cultural note, it’s the sort of film that appeals to all the senses. It looks glorious, the sound, especially the music, bypasses your brain and grabs at your heart, and you can practically smell the food, the countryside, the sun-drenched city.  It should be added very close to the top of the woefully short list of great foodie films (another favourite is La Grande Bouffe, though that’s a rather different proposition, I admit). It is understated but heart-stoppingly dramatic at the same time – there’s an operatic quality about it, without the singing or the improbably large women posing as flighty ingenues. Go and see it.

Every day, for the past 35 years, my sister has eaten three Weetabix for breakfast. Except on holiday, where her chosen wholegrain cereal has proved unobtainable, she has not wavered. Ever steadfast, she remains faithful. She never flirts, not even with Coco Pops.

I think this is insane. There are many ways in which we differ (such is the spice of sibling life) but this is one of the most marked. Don’t get me wrong, she likes to cook. Occasionally. But actual eating, while not a chore, is something that she does on automatic pilot, rather than with the deep joy of one who has been dreaming of what to have for dinner since the previous evening. How she hasn’t, even once, got bored with her biscuity breakfast, is beyond me. The same thing two days in a row makes me feel as if Groundhog Day has arrived. And I quite often run out of milk anyway.

Recently my constant struggle for breakfastal variety has taken me in some odd directions. This is my current favourite breakfast:

Spinach and feta mush

Decant a bag of fresh spinach into a non-stick pan, on a middling heat. Put the lid on and after a very few minutes, stir it around until it wilts into an alarmingly small pile. Remove from the pan and put in a sieve over a bowl. Add some oil to the pan.

Crush a clove of garlic (this is optional. All of it is basically optional, because it’s all just stuff I had in the cupboard). Put in the pan to sauté for a minute or two but don’t burn it. With scissors, snip three rashers of streaky bacon into bits, and add to the pan. Cook for a bit until crispy, stirring occasionally. In the meantime, put on a pair of clean rubber gloves (to prevent you burning your hands) and squeeze as much fluid as you can out of the spinach. Chop it roughly, and add it to the garlic and bacon. Take a chunk of feta cheese (how big depends on how salty you want your mush, which isn’t something I ever thought I’d hear myself say) and crumble it into the pan. Stir. Beat one egg in a bowl (this makes it technically breakfast) and add to the pan, stirring quickly so that it’s incorporated before becoming scrambled. When the egg is cooked, eat from a bowl, with a fork. It doesn’t go with toast.

Sometimes I bulk it out with shredded and sautéed Savoy cabbage, or just do it with cabbage when I can’t be bothered to faff about with the spinach, or don’t have any.  I know. It’s weird. But it’s dead nice. And they eat meat and cheese for breakfast in Germany and no-one bats an eyelid, so stuff it.