Truth compels us to assert our conviction of the superior wholesomeness of bread made in our own homes - Eliza Acton

Pertelote is learning to be an Eastender... [more]
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Monday 28th February

Something new to do with prawns, not a salad (have you seen the weather?) but quick and easy and a little bit paella-ish.

450g cooked prawns
1 onion
1 red pepper
1 green chilli
1 stick celery
2 cloves garlic
300g bulgar wheat
600g chicken or vegetable stock
One lemon
handful chopped flat-leaf parsley
few threads of saffron
tsp smoked paprika

Chop the onion, celery and pepper and soften them in olive oil in a paella pan. After ten minutes add the garlic and chilli, both finely chopped. Warm the stock (or pour boiling water on the stock powder...) and add the saffron to soften it and let the flavour infuse right through the liquid. Add the bulgar wheat to the pan and toast for a minute, stirring so the grains are well covered in oil. Pour in the stock, bring to the boil and turn the heat right down. Cover the pan for the first ten minutes while the wheat absorbs the liquid, then remove it for another five to get a bit of a crust on the bottom. Finally scatter the prawns over the top, squeeze the lemon over them and replace the lid for just a couple of minutes while you chop the parsley - as the prawns are already cooked, they barely need to heat up and any longer will make them chewy. Serve with parsley and paprika sprinkled liberally over the top.

Friday 25th February

Luigi's, Tavistock Street WC2

We ate here with C's parents after he sang in a concert at St Paul's Convent Garden. It's exactly what you'd expect of a theatreland Italian restaurant: walls plastered with photos of people who were famous a long time before little Pertelote ever learned to lisp 'two for the stalls, please', heavily accented waiting staff, loud Americans at the next table, and really rather good food. I started with lobster bisque, which was wonderful, but the others had a much more interesting starter of stuffed calamari: one whole squid each, cooked to incredible tenderness and stuffed with a very tasty mixture of white fish, breadcrumbs, garlic and herbs. I picked right for my main course though with osso bucco - it means 'hollow bone' which strikes me as a deliberate deception because the whole point is that the bone isn't hollow - it's a veal shank, full of delicious marrow, which you scoop out with the end of your knife or sometimes a teeny spoon and eat with the lovely tender meat (the shank is cooked slowly until the meat is falling off the bone) and traditionally with a saffron risotto. At Luigi's we did get a little timbale of saffron rice, but more of a highlight were the vegetables: julienned spring vegetables - baby leeks, carrots and courgettes - which I think had been cooked very lightly (blanched?) so that they then soaked up the wonderful gelatinous jus from the meat. Mama mia.

Wednesday 23rd February

Great as plain produce can be when it's fresh from the garden and eaten in the sun, at this time of year when you need a little extra comfort I'm always glad to have something new to do with familiar veg. A good punchy side dish is courgettes with black olives - grilling the courgettes makes them a very convenient accompaniment to pork chops, say, or tuna steak. Cut the ends off the courgettes and slice them lengthways, about 1/2 centimetre thick. Lay on a grillpan and brush with olive oil. Cook under a hot grill for ten minutes, turning once. Once they are tender and slightly browned on both sides, spread with tapenade and grill for another couple of minutes. Tapenade: three anchovies, two teaspoons of capers, small deli-counter tub of black olives, a good number of basil leaves and a slug of brandy. Whizz but leave chunky, adding oil only if necessary.

Tuesday 22nd February

There was a little filo pastry left over, not enough to do anything sensible with, and I thought I would make us a bit of dessert - unusual for a weekday, but snow is a good excuse for anything! Also I had some apples which weren't particularly nice raw (I know, it's far too late in the season), and I wanted to caramelise them. So four eating apples were peeled, sliced, and cooked over a low heat with lots of butter and a good spoonful of brown sugar - that's the easy part. How to turn them into pie? Well, I could... or then again... if I try it like this... no, that's not going to work... how about... oops!... Ho hum. Poor pastry. It was a little tired to start with, and now it's tattered and torn and in no state to wrap anything. But I like it so much - the buttery crispness will contrast beautifully with the sweet soft apples, and it does go against the grain to throw it out. But I know, it's liberally buttered, so if I just scrunch it up loosely and pop it in the oven for ten minutes - keeping the apples warm in the pan meanwhile - it can all be assembled on the plate.

Saturday 19th February

So often recipe-creation is driven by nothing more inspirational than the budget. Minced lamb on BOGOF? I'll take two, thank you very much, and never mind that I've no idea what to do with a kilo of the stuff. Half-price filo pastry the day before its sell-by date? Splendid. In it goes and don't think twice - from long experience I know that thinking in supermarkets, especially about food tends to lead to a) long periods of inaction as I stare zombie-like at some tempting item, and b) yo-yoing between aisles as I think of more and more obscure items that I just can't make that without. Anyway, this week's random purchases, plus fond memories of pastillas eaten in North African restaurants in Paris, plus a quick skim through Claudia Roden, equals:

Moroccan lamb parcels

500g minced lamb
Eight sheets of filo pastry
100g butter, melted for 20 seconds in the microwave
100g chopped dried apricots
50g pine nuts
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground ras el hanout
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp cinnamon

Brown the mince quickly in a frying pan; add the spices and stir well. When browned throughout, add the apricots and pine nuts and set aside. Pre-heat the oven to 200°C.

To make four parcels, cut the filo sheets in half and keep them under a damp tea towel as you work. Each parcel is made by laying four half-sheets on top of each other at 45 degrees - the result should be somewhere between an asterisk and an octogon. Brush each sheet with melted butter as you put it down. I find it easiest to make them in situ - i.e. on the baking tray - as they aren't easy to lift once full. Put a quarter of the lamb in the centre of each pastry and gather the sides up around it one at a time, taking the last sheets you put down first: they will lie flat to seal the parcel, with the rest gathering more abstractly to make a nice jagged top. Use plenty of melted butter to stick everything together and ensure it browns without burning once it's in the oven. Bake for fifteen minutes or until a nice colour. You can serve these with couscous, but it would be nice to have something fresh on the side: a carrot and orange-water salad, or perhaps some minted yoghurt.

Wednesday 16th February

A new ingredient, courtesy of Borough Market: pea sprouts. They're of the same ilk as the more familiar beansprouts, but longer and more delicate, and with a definite pea-like flavour. I stir-fried them in fairly classical style as a side dish with some grilled lemon sole and was pleased with the result, which was quite sweet and fresh, with a lovely crunchy texture; but I think the flavour is delicate enough that it was a little overwhelmed by the stronger ones here. Since they're not expensive or particularly hard for me to get hold of I wouldn't let that stop me using them in this recipe, but I would like to try giving them a more starring role - they'd make a very spring-like salad, I should think.

Pea sprout noodles

Handful of pea sprouts (about 100g), halved if longer than a couple of inches
Clove of garlic
One green chilli
Three or four spring onions
Small knob of fresh ginger
Soy sauce
Sesame seeds
One bundle of soba noodles

Set the noodles to cook according to their recommended method. Make sure all the other ingredients are chopped finely before you start heating some vegetable oil in a wok. When it is quite hot, add the garlic and chilli first, then a minute or so later the rest of the ingredients. Stir fry until the onions and sprouts are cooked through but still keeping some bite - only a few minutes. Add soy sauce to taste and toss with the cooked and drained noodles.

Tuesday 15th February

My first job out of uni was a nine month stint as administrator, receptionist, PA and general office dogsbody at the Further Education Funding Council. There were two of us with identical jobs - on fixed term contracts because the Council was being closed down in a big government shake-up, and with the same let's-try-this-job-lark-while-we-decide-what-to-do-with-our-lives attitude. I got quite into the education administration thing, but brave Becky went off to train as a teacher. Anyway, apart from a career and a lifetime's supply of stationery (they were closing down, I tell you!), I brought away this recipe for one of the great staples of winter comfort food.

Becky's leek and potato soup

Four large floury (baking) potatoes such as King Edwards or Maris Pipers
Three leeks
Three rashers of smoked back bacon
1 litre of chicken stock
Two sprigs of rosemary
2 tbs cream

Peel and chop the potatoes into inch cubes. Wash the leeks and slice them finely. Heat some olive oil in a large pot and sweat the veg for ten minutes, covered and on a low heat. Alternatively, if your chicken stock is homemade and has been in the fridge, it probably has a lovely disc of solid fat sitting on it: I'd use that instead of the olive oil. Chop the bacon and rosemary small and add to the pan, stirring well. Sweat for another five minutes, then add the stock and bring to the boil. Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary. Simmer for another fifteen to twenty minutes until the potato is soft. Whizz with a hand-held blender until smooth. Serve with a spiral of cream and some crusty bread.

Sunday 13th February

I was asked to take a cheeseboard to a dinner party over the weekend and of course I couldn't resist making something too. I was very tempted by Becks&Posh's mulled port wine jelly, and will have to try it out very soon. But on this occasion time being short, the party large and the bread-maker new, I decided to take along a small loaf. I haven't experimented very much with the machine yet, as for day-to-day toast and sandwiches I find a plain wholemeal loaf more adaptable than a flavoured one, so this was a good opportunity. I like something sweet and fruity to complement cheese, so I was running through combinations of dried fruit and nuts in my head and kept coming back to figs. From there it seemed to make sense to add black pepper as well - and the result was actually pretty good. I used quite soft-dried figs, and they dissolved more or less completely, dispersing through the bread rather than being scattered lumps as I'd expected. I'd like to try it with a thicker-textured bread, perhaps a sourdough, to see whether that has a different effect.

Figgy bread (for a bread-maker)

3/4 tsp instant yeast
400g wholemeal flour
1 tsp salt
200g dried figs, quartered
2 tsp honey
2 tsp ground black pepper
300ml water (or 3 parts water to 1 part milk)

Follow your machine's instructions! Cop-out, I know. But sound advice all the same. PS - photo by Claire - thanks.

Wednesday 9th February

How glad I am that our forefathers, rest their souls, took Lent so seriously. If they hadn't felt it necessary to forswear such luxuries as eggs and milk and butter for the duration, they wouldn't have had to eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday - and how much poorer our (already fairly impoverished, to be honest) British culinary tradition would have been for it. I suppose I should also be glad to live in an age of such decadence, when custom no longer requires any form of self-denial in order to justify indulgence in pancakes on Pancake Day, easter eggs on Easter Day, and Hot Cross Buns all the while in between. Our supper was loosely based on Mark Hix's recipe in the Independent:

Chicken and mushroom pancakes (to serve two)

Make four unsweetened pancakes and lay them in an ovenproof dish - half of each needs to be flat on the bottom of the dish, the other half (which will later fold over the top) can overlap the others or hang over the side at this stage. Pre-heat the grill. Fry half an onion in butter and oil with 200g chopped chestnut or small portabella mushrooms; when soft, add 50ml white wine and 100ml stock (chicken or vegetable), and simmer quite strongly for ten minutes until reduced by half. Add some pieces of cold chicken - we used all the meat I could get off both legs plus some. Stir in two spoonfuls of crème fraîche and one of chopped flat-leaf parsley. Keep it bubbling for five minutes to heat the meat through, then use a slotted spoon to put a quarter of the chicken and mushroom mixture onto one half of each pancake. Fold them over. If the sauce left is still thin, reduce it a little more, then take it off the heat. Take an egg yolk and whisk it in to the sauce - quickly so that it has no chance to scramble. Pour the sauce over the pancakes and put the dish under a hot grill for a few minutes. Serve with some raw baby spinach leaves.

Tuesday 8th February

This corner of London is still new enough for me to get excited about. One of the very best things about it is the closeness and accessibility of the justly famous Borough Market. It is simply the best place I know to get a fantastic range of good fresh produce - not restricted by needing to be sold by the producers themselves, or local, or Organic, and not the carefully selected beauty-parade veg you get in food halls. Just specialist traders selling what they know best. The veg stalls and butchers would be worth the trip alone, but like calls to like and Brindisa, Neal's Yard Dairy and Konditor & Cook now all have outlets there - shopping heaven. On Saturday I stocked up for the week and brought home a chicken 'label anglais'. I roasted it with lemon and garlic and it was delicious. I can't wait to make stock with the carcass! I had also picked up some lovely bulbs of fennel, which is just coming into season, and which made a good accompaniment:

Braised fennel (to serve two)

Trim two average-sized bulbs of fennel (that is, remove the stalks and the outer leaves, but keep the fronds to one side. That's why you didn't buy it ready-trimmed from the supermarket, you see! The fronds are useful and delicious!) Roughly slice. Heat some olive oil and butter in a frying pan and add the fennel. Sprinkle with a little salt and cook for a few minutes over a reasonable heat until it begins to soften. Squeeze half a lemon over, add a small glass of white wine, put a lid on the pan and reduce the heat. Cook for twenty minutes until the fennel is soft and translucent and the liquid reduced to almost nothing. Strip half a dozen stems of lemon thyme and add the leaves to the pan. Finally chop the reserved fennel fronds and sprinkle them over the top before serving.

Monday 7th February

I am terrible in the mornings. Truly terrible. I'm sleepy, I'm grumpy, and there my resemblance to any of the Seven Dwarves ends: I certainly do not leave the house whistling. The only way I can stumble through the morning is to have a strict routine, and of course the routine involves the best motivator I know: food. C takes care of breakfast while I make lunch for us both. And this sandwich is both quick enough and easy enough for me to make while half-asleep; and tasty enough to cheer up a winter (ie, desk-bound) lunch hour. It's basically cold chicken with hummous, but the magic ingredient is that I already have in the fridge a jar of Moro's pomegranate molasses dressing.

2 tbs pomegranate molasses
4 tbs olive oil
1 tbs water
1/4 tsp cinnamon

Moro also includes a clove of garlic, but I find that unnecessary - especially if I'm eating it with hummous. I like white bread for a chicken sandwich, but now I come to think of it, this would be jolly good tucked into a pitta bread.

Sunday 6th February

Mexican Cookies

Good ol' choc-chip cookies, but with a bit of a kick. I was prompted to make these in large part because I had an ancient bar of chilli chocolate in the cupboard. But if you don't have access to such delights - and let's face it, if you do, unlike me you probably have the sense not to let delicious expensive Rococo chocolate sit in a slightly too warm cupboard for twelve months - use all plain, adding chilli powder to taste. I'd suggest starting with half a teaspoon... This is not the place for machismo.

100g caster sugar
50g soft brown sugar
100g unsalted butter
1 egg
175g plain flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp salt
70g chilli chocolate
30g plain chocolate
100g raisins

Pre-heat oven to 160°C and grease a large baking sheet.

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the egg and beat in well.

Sieve the flour, bicarb, salt and cinnamon (and chilli powder if using) into the mix. This will make a fairly firm dough.

Chop the chocolate roughly and add, along with the raisins. Mix well.

Scoop out teaspoon-full-sized lumps of dough and roll them into balls. It should make about 24 cookies, and they will spread as they bake, so you probably want to use two baking sheets or cook them in two batches. Flatten the balls a little with the back of a spoon.

Bake for 18-20 minutes. The biscuits won't get much browner but they should be firm at the edges and still soft in the centre.

Saturday 5th February

I wonder. If I just slip back quietly, can I pretend I've never been gone? Might I even fool you into thinking that 'November' on the last entry was only a couple of months ago? Because you could forgive a couple of months, I know...