an adventure into my cookbook collection: soul-searching, doing things differently & the truths I learn along the way...

deseeding pomegranates is feminine & erotic, unless you hit them with a wooden spoon...


Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Interlude number 2 – the cookbooks

Here I am with another break from cooking (don’t worry I haven’t stopped). As I said in my first ever blog, I have too many cookbooks. I really do love them though, and as far as addictions go, it isn’t exactly the end of the world. Yes it is much easier to look for a recipe on the internet, but there is something about their physical presence, squashed on the shelf, arranged according to food style (of course). I love books where the emphasis is on the prose, and the personal journey or nostalgia of the writer.  They inspire me with my cooking, with my foodie adventures and my writing.

Not all of the cookbooks on the shelf are mine, others include: a great book on food activism Soy not “Oi”; Vegan Cooking for One, possibly the most depressing cookbook on the planet; Claudia Roden’s wonderful epic The Book of Jewish Food; Aromas of Aleppo, a great book on a really specific and rich culture – sometimes I wish that my own cultural heritage was a bit more complex than potatoes, herring and beetroot. I do love chrayne though…

Here is a list of some of my favourite cookbooks, what they are like and how they inspire me. I have left out a few of my favourites as I have harped on about them enough for the time being (The Moosewood Cookbook, Apples for Jam, Ottolenghi, River Cottage Veg Everyday!). Most of my favourite books were given to me as gifts, and so much love and thanks to those wonderful people who gave them to me.

Spooning with Rosie – Rosie Lovell
I first heard about this book eavesdropping a colleague talking on the phone about what she was cooking for dinner (a colleague whose food judgement I trust). I heard the word ‘spooning’ and I knew that I had to look into it. Anything that includes spooning is ok by me. Rosie Lovell owns a trendy little deli in Brixton, and she is a little bit like the kind of person I want to be. Her writing is multi-sensory and evocative “another late night in Soho…Now as usual, my alarm is pounding at me, calling me to the deli. Showered and squeezed into trusty jeans, I dash out the door of my damp 1930s flat. Round the main road I pass Simon, one of the more amenable local down-and-outs. ‘All right, Ma’am.’ He’ll be in later for his hot chocolate with five sugars…Electric Avenue is particularly alive at this time of morning, with sex-workers, red snappers, pig’s tails and pulsing beats coming from every crevice…”

The book includes a range of recipes in different styles, with a fantastic breakfast section. I haven’t actually made anything from this book yet, but there is a lot on my hit-list, including some coconut cakes made almost entirely out of condensed milk, a smoked mackerel and chard bake with a crunchy top, and grated apple and cheese on toast – genius! My one criticism would be that there aren’t enough photographs of the dishes, and the spine is pretty solid, so the book doesn’t prop open as easily as I would like from a cookbook. There are however some incredible illustrations of food-maps, pairing traditional flavours, kitchenware and hygiene tips. There is also a little section on food ethics.

The Great British Bake Off – Linda Collister, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood
I loved this show so much. When it comes to competitions on TV, I’m not into sports, amateur singers make me cringe, and even potential next top models can’t hold my interest. Give me cake and an unrealistic amount of pressure and I’m there. Watching the contestants plead into the camera about how their kids won’t love them if they don’t win, or crying into their potatoes just makes me so happy.  From the looks of my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I think everyone else loved The Great British Bake Off too.

This book is just fantastic, it has all of the really good recipes from the show – both from the participants and the technical challenges, with incredibly detailed step-by-step instructions and beautiful photos. It is easy to follow and every chapter begins with an explanation of the practicalities and science behind baking. I haven’t cooked anything from this book yet but Hannah recently made the coffee and walnut traybake, and it was really delicious – she was really impressed with the book, and said that it explained the principles of cake in a way that most other books fail to convey. Recipes I want to try include Earl Grey cupcakes, Mary Berry’s Brandy snaps, filled with cream and dipped in chocolate and pistachios, and Jason’s (the really cute young one) salmon and pak choi quiche.

And Mary-Anne! Remember her? Remember her incredible patterned sponges? Truly one of the best things I have ever seen on a cake, and the recipe is in there! Makes me so happy. One day I am going to be organised and motivated enough to make someone a cake with ‘happy birthday’ or something written into the sponge.

I am unimpressed with the macaroons though, even the photos aren’t that good – mine (Ottolenghi’s) are better.

World Vegetarian – Madhur Jaffrey
This book had more little paper bookmarks in than any other book I own. It is an opus – over 600 recipes listed alphabetically according to vegetable (first artichoke, then asparagus), each with an introduction, place of origin and easy to follow recipe. There is also a section on dried beans, lentils and nuts. The book is well-researched and exotic: while there is a focus on Indian food, there are recipes from places such as Trinidad, Sri Lanka, Sumatra, Afghanistan and Korea. Makes an incredible index and research tool, useful for how to prepare veggies, and aspects of food culture and history. One of the recipes which I have made many times is the poached aubergines with a Korean hot sauce – the recipe says that the kochu jang can be substituted with a mixture of miso and cayenne pepper. And its very tasty. Recipes I want to try include Papas a la huancaina – Peruvian potatoes with a spicy cheese sauce; Goan style black-eyed beans flavoured with anise, coconut and ginger; Nigerian red kidney bean stew with a peanut sauce – it’s a recipe that has peanut butter in it, so of course I am there.

The Flavour Thesaurus – Niki Segnit
Emma bought me this book as a present for my 25th birthday. From what I can recall she gave it to me on the train, and I then spent the rest of the entire journey jumping up and down in my seat and reading bits of it out loud to her, like an over-excited 7 year old. An opus of 99 different flavours and their best, and worst combinations. The concept of the book is “Pairings, recipes and ideas for the creative cook” – it’s a book for those who know how to cook, so the actual recipes are stripped back and presume a large amount of knowledge. I like this because it makes me feel a little bit smug every time I understand what she is talking about. As well as recipes there are tips, bad ideas, history, pop-culture and nostalgia.

I keep a bookmark in the book covered in my notes- recipes and ideas I want to try. I bought the novel Like water for chocolate after she referred to it a few times amongst various flavour combinations, and of her other advice was as good as that, this book is my new bible. Her writing is evocative and resonant – in terms of writing styles, hers has influenced me the most. Check out this tip about aubergines: “ideally an aubergine should be as tight and shiny as dolphin skin. Similarly they should squeak when you pinch them.” Recipes on my list to try so far include a chocolate cardamom tart and fennel seed crackers to serve with Stinking Bishop or a similar washed-rind cheese.

The Vintage Tea Party Book – Angel Adoree
“A complete guide to hosting your perfect tea party.” This is a really lovely book.  Angel Adoree runs the Vintage Patisserie and has perfectly set flame-red hair, and an enviable cleavage. As well as recipes the book has cute little crafting sections (invitations, painting on china, fascinators) as well as all the other tips you may need to become a super-hip vintage chic. Her tips for styling the perfect victory curls have been very useful. Some of the recipes are really interesting – the cakes, eggy things and chocolates especially. On one page, Angel arranges open triangular sandwiches with ribbons like bunting – SANDWICH BUNTING!!! Can you think of anything more brilliant? Perfect for the jubilee weekend I think. I haven’t made anything from this book either, but there is a very interesting recipe for an Earl Grey chocolate truffle which I am very keen to try. There is one recipe which is so incredibly complex, simple and sensual that my thighs tremble a little bit just thinking about it – I’m going to keep it under wraps for the time being, but I will let you know if I make it!

Moro, The Cookbook – Sam and Sam Clark
I think the main reason for buying this book was because Moro is so damn trendy. I was once walking down a street and ACTUALLY WALKED PAST MORO! I have never felt cooler by association.  It is actually a lovely book, and the paper just feels so nice. And Sam and Sam really know what they are talking about. This is probably one of the best-researched books I have (Claudia Roden’s doesn’t count because I don’t technically own it). Spanish/ Muslim Mediterranean in style, the recipes are spicy, exotic and warming. As I don’t eat pork, there are actually a lot of recipes in this book that I can’t eat – but they sound so good I have been known to try and convince others to make them, and describe it to me (yes I know, I’m a dork). It also requires ingredients like proper Spanish sherry and sherry vinegar – like Ajo Blanco, a very delicious white gazpacho – a vehicle for legitimately eating copious amounts of garlic. The fish tagines look incredible too, and the cauliflower with saffron, pinenuts and raisins. And the bitter chocolate, coffee and cardamom truffle cake – oh my.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Pistachio shortbreads with cardamom

One of these days, I am going to become the kind of person that always has homemade cookie dough in the freezer – always half an hour away from a freshly baked cookie. What could be better? And these babies are a pretty fantastic place to start. This is another recipe from the Ottolenghi cookbook, which is definitely up there with the greats. I have now made 6 dishes from this book and they have all turned out perfectly, and my friends who have tried others say that they were all brilliant too. To have a book with inspiring recipes, interesting prose, fantastic photos and recipes that actually work is pretty special.

These were first made to celebrate a working oven at our little flat in Willesden – for the first time since moving in a year and a half ago, we have an oven whose temperatures I trust. Precision is pretty fundamental to baking. I have made these a few times first without the pistachio border (I didn’t have any pistachios) and I thought they were brilliant – but then I tried them with the nuts and oh wow. They add a sort of savoury, complex balance that’s hard to explain, but really really delicious.

Makes about 20 cookies – fits perfectly on 2 baking trays so no need to cook in batches.

8 cardamom pods
200g unsalted butter – softened
25g ground rice or rice flour (this is really vital to making these cookies ‘not just short, but positively tiny’ and can be found in healthfood stores and good supermarkets)
240g plain flour
½ tsp salt
35g icing sugar
60g shelled pistachio nuts chopped finely with a knife or food processor – not as fine as ground almonds – you want some larger lumps too
1 free-range egg, lightly beaten
2 tbsp (or so) vanilla sugar (if you don’t happen to store your vanilla pods in sugar, you can buy vanilla sugar quite cheaply in supermarkets in handy little shakers)

Use a pestle and mortar to split the cardamom pods and grind their seeds into a fine powder.
Ottolenghi suggests using an electric mixer with a beater attachment to make the dough, but I managed pretty well with a big bowl and a spoon. Either way, you want to incorporate the flours, cardamom, salt, icing sugar and butter until it forms a dough. If doing this by hand it may help to soften the butter for about 10 seconds in the microwave first (you do not want it melted).
Turn the dough out and roll it into a log 3-4cm in diameter. This can either be done by dusting it in a little flour, or with a piece of cling film folded over the dough. Either way, when it is shaped, wrap the log in cling film and leave it in the fridge to set for at least half an hour.
Brush the cookie dough log with the beaten egg and roll it in the ground pistachios, and then wrap it back in the cling film and put it back in the fridge for at least another half hour.
While the dough is chilling, preheat the oven to 150c (with fan). When ready, remove the cling film from the dough and cut the log into slices 5mm – 1cm thick. Lay them on trays lined with baking parchment (or foil, parchment is better though), and dust with the vanilla sugar.
Bake the cookies for 20-25 minutes – you want them to look slightly golden but not much more than that. Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool before carefully removing from the tray – except for that one, slightly misshapen one that gets picked up hot off the tray, just for quality control though! Store the cookies in a sealed jar, box or cookie tin.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

South American style black beans with roasted peppers and cornbread

Here is another example of the South American style cooking that I raved about in my warm corn salsa post. As a vegetarian dish it isn’t particularly authentic, but it is really delicious. This recipe is of my own invention, but based on reading a lot of recipes on cooking black beans, especially those by Thomasina Miers, who I love. While it might seem a little bit too wholesome or ‘hand-knitted yogurt’ – the beans are incredibly meaty and flavourful, with the additions of cheese and sour cream, it doesn’t have to be all that wholesome. When I make chilli con soya, I throw in so many different ingredients to try and make it taste of something (chipotle paste, chocolate etc) and it never really works – this recipe though, is so simple and yet has exactly the depth of flavour that I am looking for. I thoroughly recommend it.

This is the first time I have cooked with dried beans, somehow they always scared me. Maybe I am just generally not organised enough to get them soaking from the night before- that tends to require forward planning. Or maybe its just that it is so much easier to open a can. After boiling these babies for 2 ½ hours, yeah it is easer to reach for a can – but – 1) I am 100% sure they taste better this way 2) canned black beans aren’t the easiest to find 3) I feel incredibly smug for doing something properly for once. Stirring that black, bubbling, pot brought up my inner witch too – staring into the pot’s murky depths I cackled, and thought dark thoughts at those who deserve them (you know who you are) with a counter-clockwise stir after every 7.

1 packet of black beans - 500g
2 onions, 1 quartered and 1 diced
4-5 cloves of garlic, peeled and bashed
1 bay leaf
1 shallow tsp fennel seeds (if you have them)
1 -2 red peppers
Olive oil
2 heaped tsp paprika
2 heaped tsp ground cumin
½ tsp cinnamon
Tabasco – to taste, but at least 5 drops
Lime juice – approx the juice of 1 lime (I used a few spoons of juice from a bottle, as the limes in asda looked particularly manky – that’s what you get for shopping on a bank holiday I imagine.
1 bunch fresh coriander, roughly chopped
Salt and pepper

To serve:
Tomato salsa
Sour cream
Cheesy corn-bread – use the recipe from the polenta pan-pizza post, but add a pile of grated cheese to the batter. Another delicious use for this cornbread recipe is to add frozen corn, chopped chillies and coriander to the batter.

For the beans – soak the beans overnight. Add them to a large pot with covered with 10cm of water. Add the quartered onion, the garlic, the bay and fennel. Bring to the boil and cook for at least 2 hours, stirring every now and again to stop it burning, and skimming the white foamy stuff off the top with a spoon. You will also need to top the water up at some point. Once the beans are soft (for me this was at 2h 25) add salt, at least 1tsp, and cook for a further 10 minutes. Make sure that the beans are soft as salt can make them go tough if they are not properly cooked. When ready, drain them, discard the bay and other bits (if you can find them) and empty the beans into a clean saucepan ready for later.

For the peppers – preheat the oven to 180 or so (with fan). Cut the peppers into large strips, toss in olive oil and roast until they are looking a little shrivelled and toasty. When they are cool enough to handle, peel the skins from them, chop them roughly and add them to the cooked beans.

While the peppers are cooking, fry the diced onion with all of the ground spices on a medium-low heat until translucent and slightly caramelised. Add these to the cooked beans too.

Put the beans back on the heat while you prepare the cornbread, also adding to the pot the lime juice and Tabasco. Stir through the coriander just before you are ready to serve.

Serve with the cornbread in generous wedges, salsa and sour cream.  Put some extra lime juice and Tabasco on the table, so people can adjust the flavours more according to their preferences. 

Monday, 7 May 2012

Baked Yoghurt (Payodhi)

Here is another guest blog – by the wonderful Emma. Emma and I lived together in university for 3 years, and we bonded over a love of food, cooking, custard and West Wing.  One of the things I love about her is her quiet humility – the dinner party she mentions hosting with Rachel was in fact an epic sheva bracha (post-wedding party) for our fellow house-mate Simon and his wife Naomi. As I don’t have as much humility I can say that it was pretty much one of the best things we have ever done.  We sat on mattresses on the floor listening to Groove Armada with a proper Indian feast (thanks also go to my mother for the pakoras). When we were first planning the feast I felt slightly guilty for bossily delegating Emma the desserts without any consultation (but only for a minute) but I knew it had to be done, she is the dessert queen. And I think the guests of the evening will agree. Thanks to the Moishe House for hosting too, and Becky’s amazing home-made bread.

And now here is Emma:

Recently I co-hosted an Indian themed dinner party with Miri and our friend Rachel.  For dessert I made Payodhi (or Baked Yoghurt), which proved to be a great success.  Think a rich creamy cheesecake, without the cream, cheese…or cake.  Payodhi is a one of the easiest desserts to make.  It requires no measuring of ingredients and a simple cooking technique called whisking.  Before baking I like to sprinkle the mixture with saffron (picked up on my epic inter-railing adventure to Istanbul), which adds a touch of sophistication to an otherwise basic dish.  If you can’t get hold of saffron, once baked, sprinkle with pistachio nuts.  Enjoy! 

Baked Yoghurt (Payodhi) (from Indian Vegetarian Cooking, by Sumana Ray 2000)
serves about 10
1 tin (14.5 oz/410g/1 ¾ cups) evaporated milk
1 tin (14 oz/397g/1 ¾ cups) condensed milk
1 tub (18 oz/500g/2 ¼ cups) yoghurt
1 tbsp pistachio nuts, skinned and chopped
preheat oven to 450F / 225C / Gas Mark 5
whisk the evaporated milk, condensed milk and yoghurt together for 1 minute
pour into an oven-proof dish and sprinkle with saffron
place in the preheated oven
turn the oven off after 6 minutes and leave the dish in the oven overnight. Chill. 
serve garnished with the chopped nuts.