Be more Olive and Mabel: chocolate and ginger biscuits

I went on a bus yesterday afternoon. London buses have always been a treat for me, especially the top floor but, these days, they’re not much fun. Social-distancing and mask-wearing seem to belong to another world and, when someone was about to sit beside me (distance between us, about two inches…) I decided to get off. It was the right decision, but I did get so completely soaked on the walk home that I needed to change all my clothes once I got in.

All I wanted after that was to sit in the warm, drinking tea and eating biscuits. I am supposed to be limiting my sugar intake, after the last six months’ indulgence and lack of movement, but as I squelched home, thinking about the state of the world, I realised that a few extra pounds around my waist are not really very important. Perhaps it was okay not to deprive myself when everything is such a mess.

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Rock-star cauliflower with red pepper and tahini

Today my niece starts her postgraduate medicine degree. Though I know she’s really excited, I also imagine the prospect of lots of protective clothing and being in and out of GP practices and hospitals is, in these times, a little scary. And, after six months of not having to do very much, she will now be immensely busy. So I thought I would wish her well by finding her a recipe or two, ones that are simple and cheap and won’t tax her brain too much when it is busy learning how to save lives.

The first comes from John Gregory-Smith’s great book, Saffron in the Souks. I’ve been making this recipe for about a year and it seems perfect for a student. It also, I realise, happens to be vegan like her. But it is very much ‘just happens to be’; this isn’t complicated and doesn’t require any special skills (nut activation?!) or shopping.

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Make your own: J. Sheekey’s Fish Pie

I have a book title stuck in my head right now. It’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go. Except, right now, it’s Oh, the Places You Won’t Go. And when you’ve been shielding most of the year and nothing feels that safe, there are lots of those. We have cautiously been going out, mostly because we want there to be a world left when this is all over and if any thing needs supporting right now, it is very much the hospitality business. And, hopefully soon, theatre. Yet, at the same time, there is a limit to the support that we can offer. I’ve had no paying work, or barely any, since April and the autumn is looking dreadful. So, though I’d like to go to all of my favourites, returning to them is somewhat on hold. However, I can still wave a flag for them, and encourage others to give them support or, if the restaurant is out of reach, suggest great cookbooks to buy (from bookshops or Hive please; the Omnicorp doesn’t need your money) so, even if you can’t eat out, you can still eat the food (and support the business).

Which is why I have come back to the blog today, to shout about a) J. Sheekey’s excellent cookbook and b) its wonderful fish pie. I often don’t like restaurant cookbooks, because they can be unreliable, especially if they are written by chefs who never use a domestic kitchen. And yet I also love some, for allowing me access to wondrous dishes that I can’t always afford to eat in. This fish pie is a case in point. I tend not to order it in the restaurant, because there is always a whole crab taking precedence, or a beautifully cooked piece of halibut on special (I am resisting the urge to add a reference to Life of Brian here…) and yet it always sounds perfect. And when I browsed the book, and saw that the recipe was quite straightforward, it seemed a very good reason to buy it. Continue reading

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Travels with my brunch: Niki Segnit’s kedgeree

I have been making this for over a year now, ever since I first got a copy of Niki Segnit’s witty and unique Lateral Cooking. Like her first book, The Flavour Thesaurus, this brilliant tome unpicks cooking and recipes in a way that no one else has ever managed (as far as I know).

In the Thesaurus, she lists ingredient pairings: what goes with what. With 99 starter ingredients and over a thousand entries, it offers flavour combinations that you may have thought of, considered or would never touch and, in doing so, pushes a home cook’s knowledge from safety into creativity.

In Lateral Cooking, she does exactly the same but this time, the starting point is a basic recipe rather than an ingredient. She demonstrates how to make one thing, then how to make another using the same skills and recipe, with a few tweaks.

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Cupboard love: always zest the lemon or how to make the most of everything

If, like me, you have had a tough time sourcing food recently, you may have become more attached to leftovers, and using up every scrap. Right now, it seems essential to make the most of all our supplies since there is a clear sense that this could go on for several months, not just weeks. But there’s more ways to this than just cling filming the bits that can be reheated the next day. Here are three other tips that will help you squeeze every drop of flavour out of your shopping, and teach you some new recipes at the same time. Continue reading

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Cupboard love: potato, onion and garlic ‘shakshuka’

Shakshuka is a middle-eastern dish popularised, at least in the UK, by Ottolenghi and it is very much worth your time. You can find a recipe for it here. I’m not sure what makes this dish a shakshuka, since it usually contains tomatoes, but I’m not complaining because it is delicious. And equally worth your time. It is basically a hash, but with the flavour ramped up by the addition of caramelised garlic. If you don’t have any eggs it would still be gorgeous. It’s one-pot too which, for those of us now cooking twice a day without a dishwasher, makes it somewhat of a godsend.

The recipe comes from Honey & Co in the FT Weekend magazine. We normally buy the physical paper on Saturdays and I love their recipes, particularly the fact that there is just one really good one every week, not thousands of slightly less interesting ones. Since we can’t get it now, I have subscribed for their 4-weeks for a £1 trial. I recommend it; it gives you access to the recipe archive and it is full of great things. Like this. It’s a perfect brunch, but I could be tempted to eat it at night too… Continue reading

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Cupboard love: banana and chocolate muffins

I’m starting blogging again, because if ever there was a time I am going to say WTF do I eat tonight it is now, on 12-week NHS lockdown, reliant on neighbours and friends for deliveries, and any services where I can get a slot. I will keep the posts and details short, because even though I suddenly have tons of free time, everything seems to be taking me hours!

Muffins are the simplest cakes in the world, the soda bread, if you will, of sweet things. And endlessly adaptable. You need flour, an egg and some milk, which may be a challenge but, other than that, not much. These contain banana and chocolate but you can change that to whatever you have, as long as you stick to about 150g of additions in step 4. Try chopped pear and almonds or apple and walnut.

You could also make savoury ones (but miss out the sugar and cinnamon then). How about cheddar and spring onion?
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Saffron in the Souks: a perfect book for summer

Is it barbecue time? Is it eating outdoors time? I think it might be! And I have just the book to take you through the summer. Saffron in the Souks, by John Gregory-Smith, was given to me a couple of weeks ago and I spent all weekend immersed in its pages. It is a book that beats my ‘five recipes = buy it’ rule three times over. If you love Lebanese food, you will love this. Continue reading

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Honey & Co meatballs, chard, yogurt

One of the reasons I still buy a newspaper, the FT if you’re wondering, is because the food writers in it, or at least their recipes, are always inspiring. What’s more, since there is only one recipe per week in the pink paper, it’s not too much of a stretch/faff to a) rip them out and store them and b) choose what to make.

In recent years their magazine has toggled back and forth between ideas from Rowley Leigh and the Honey & Co team, and every one that I have tried has gone onto the repeat list. In fact, in the last few months, I have made three, all excellent. Here’s the first, a simple combination of homemade meatballs, chard and a yogurt sauce which is fast enough for a Wednesday but still special enough for a Saturday, and easy to double. I’ve changed it to use a standard 400g packet of mince, rather than 360g and cut out the sliced plum tomato, which I felt added very little. I could eat these every week. Continue reading

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The Real Vegans: buy a cookbook, not a packet

I saw someone buying a vegan ‘beet Wellington’ in the supermarket the other day. It was in Waitrose, of course. I can’t think of many dishes that are less ‘veganisable’ than a beef Wellington, with its fillet and pâté, and it’s difficult enough to make properly anyway, but someone in marketing obviously thought it was a good idea.

I am entirely resistant to PR-driven rubbish like ‘Veganuary’, or ‘Meat-free Monday’ (I can’t even be bothered to link to them, they bore me so), mainly because I have plenty of ‘ideas’ for how to eat well, at any time or on any day of the week, but it seems like a lost opportunity to me. Why would anyone who is interested in changing their diet in such a way seek the answers in ‘fake-meat’ ready meals and vegan sausage rolls? Especially when there are so many fantastic food writers out there who make it entirely easy to be vegan and eat gorgeous dishes. As long as you learn to cook.

So, in the spirit of trying to encourage cookery rather than reheating, here are some suggestions for how to improve your diet, vegan or otherwise, with three of the best cookbooks out there. They rely on plants and grains, not sulphite ammonia caramel and palm oil, to deliver taste and I happily cook from all three, omnivore that I am.

First, Fresh India by Meera Sodha (and her column in The Guardian) is essential for anyone wanting to cook a vegetable diet. This is one of my favourite books these days, so much so that I now have to resist posting everything I make from it on here. Last week I made her cauliflower korma and cabbage and potato subji; before Christmas I made her Mysore lemon pickle and last night I tried the ben ben noodle recipe from her column. Everything shines in her work, and though some things need a curry leaf or two (now, ahem, available in supermarkets) most of the ingredients are completely accessible. Not all of the recipes are vegan but most can be made so and even the completely ‘antis’ like me will find great delight in the pages of this book.

Second, anything by Anna Jones. If you are interested in vegetables, she is your woman. I’ve recommended her book, The Modern Cook’s Year, to so many people and they all love it. At this time of year, try her not-chicken soup, butter bean stew with kale and sticky blood oranges, or the pomelo and peanut winter noodles with carrot and coconut dressing. If you are vegetarian, not vegan, try the excellent mozzarella and citrus with toasted coriander seeds, the chard, lentil and bay gratin or the figs, ricotta and radicchio. Then, for the rest of the year, dip into the other 250 recipes that take you through all the seasons. Again, not all the recipes are vegan, but she offers ways to make them so.

Finally, if you want something that really simplifies cooking and shopping (without, of course, losing any of the flavour) try some of Elly Pear’s Let Eat recipes. Her particular genius is creating bases that can be used in several ways so, instead of having to plan for five or six dinners every week you can shop for two batches of something fantastic, but still be eating a different dish every night. The mushroom, lentil and walnut ragù can be used as a pasta sauce, as a chilli or as a shepherd’s pie with a sweet potato, miso and smoked garlic mash. Or try her Tuscan-style cannellini bean stew as a soup, with gremolata or a toastie. Once you start cooking like this, it becomes much easier to solve the problem of how to eat well, without constantly restocking the cupboards. Like Anna and Meera, she can be found on Instagram too, and is always offering recipe ideas and solutions, both vegan and not.

This is intelligent, inspired food, made to appeal to everyone. And a sign that, whatever you eat, however complicated your requests, it doesn’t have to come in a packet. Please, if you want to eat more vegetables, put that Wellington back on the shelf, and buy yourself a book. You won’t regret it.

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