Breakfast of champions

When I started this blog, I pondered the possibility of one day making a career out of doing something I loved, or at least working in a related field.  In March I was made redundant from a job I’d done for far too long already and I left feeling liberated and ready for a change.  Since then I’ve been trying to figure out how to make the most of the opportunity redundancy offered me to start over and switch career.

I’ve toyed with different ideas and although I learned a lot from some great food stylists and established food writers on two Leith’s-run courses earlier this year, neither really jumped out at me as a career, although I’d like to think some benefits can be seen here! A lot of going round in circles has led me back to where I started: wanting to cook for a living.  And turns out that starts on Monday!

After a trial shift today, I’ll be starting out as a kitchen assistant at Bea’s of Bloomsbury, a fabulous cake shop that strangely enough is right round the corner from my last workplace, and the site of many of my past appraisals and staff one-to-ones over pots tea and wonderful cakes.  I’m starting out at that kitchen for a couple of weeks to learn the ropes before moving to the St Paul’s branch.  I’m completely prepared to do a lot of hard work and will learn to love an early start in return for soaking up knowledge and learning new skills from their team of pastry chefs.  I cannot wait!

Having had a wee breakfast at 5am, and not feeling hungry until I’d finished at 10,  I grabbed some food from Waitrose on my bike ride home.  Turned out these were celebratory sausage and egg muffins given that I was offered the job as they gently sizzled in the pan 🙂

It’s not even a recipe, more of a tarting up of ingredients…..(and I was very hungry…one each might be enough for you) but here it is anyway.

Homemade sausage McMuffins
Makes 2

2 sausages – I tried Waitrose’s Italian fennel ones from the butchery counter and they were lovely
2 eggs
2 English muffins
Condiments of your choosing

Note: You need some cheffy looking non-stick rings or moulds to make this look right, otherwise its just a sausage and egg sarnie.  Which I’ve just realised rather poetically were purchased as part of the swag I acquired with my generous leaving gift of a Divertimenti voucher from my last job. Nice.

Squeeze the sausages from their casings and squash into a ring mould so you’ve got a neat disc of sausage.  Carefully remove the ring and use a fish slice to place the discs into a hot frying pan.

When the sausage is almost done, oil two rings and place them into the frying pan and crack an egg into each one. Split and toast your muffins while the egg fries. When the white is almost set, gently lift the ring off – you may need to use a knife to run round the edge to help release it. I’d suggest you flip your egg, but you know how you like your eggs done.

Assemble the muffin with whatever condiments you fancy interwoven with egg and meat.  Add a slice of cheese if you want extra authenticity.  Savour how much nicer and better for you this is that the Maccy D version.  Yum!

A different kind of pumpkin pie

The great pumpkin experimentation continues. Well, kind of. This is a bit of a cheat – I used to make this when I was at Uni, so it’s not exactly a new recipe. But I have only ever made it with the ubiquitous butternut, so am pleased to report sweet dumpling squash is also a good one here – enough sweetness when it roasts to give a good flavour, and given their diminutive size (see the fork in photo for scale!) you won’t be eating pasties for weeks on end.
These are great for your lunch box. Or instead of four individual pasties, you can make one large pie, just place the rolled out pastry to a baking sheet, add all the filling and fold half the pastry over. 
Prep time: 40 minutes (including roasting the pumpkin)
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Makes 4 
500g sweet dumpling squash 
350g onions
2 cloves of garlic, skin on
3 tbsp creme fraiche
250g puff pastry
Milk or a beaten egg for sealing the edges
Wash the squash to get rid of any lumps of mud. No need to peel these little beauties, the skin is thin.  Cut each pumpkin in half and scoop out the seeds. Carefully cut round the stem and button on the base, then cut each half into 6 or so segments.
Peel the onions and try to leave a little bit of the root on, so that when you then cut them into quarters, the pieces should stay together while they roast.
Toss the pumpkin, onion and a couple of garlic cloves in some olive oil and sprinkle on some salt. Roast on a shallow baking tray at 170c for 30 minutes, giving everything a mix round halfway through.  Set aside to cool.
When the filling has cooled a little, stir through the creme fraiche and taste the mixture, adding any seasoning you think it needs.
Roll out the pastry into a square about half a centimetre thick. Cut the pastry into four rectangles and place on a baking tray. Divide the mixture between the four pieces of pastry, placing the filling in one half of the pastry, leaving about a centimetre round the edge to give space to seal the pasty.  (If you have mixture left over, it’s great stirred through pasta or a risotto.) Each pasty should be filled quite well, but you still need to be able to fold the extra pastry over the top. 
Brush a little milk or egg round the edge of each pasty and fold over the pastry, sticking the edges firmly together. Brush the tops with the rest of the egg or milk, and cut a couple of holes in the top to let the steam escape.
Bake at 180c for 30 minutes, or until the pastry is risen and golden.

Crack pie

I can’t say I wasn’t warned….One of the blogs I love is Smitten Kitchen, and the red wine cake caught my eye a few weeks ago, and I mentioned it on twitter. One of my friends replied she also loved the blog and had become addicted to the strawberry summer cake and made it all summer long.  She warned me of the addictive qualities but did I heed them? Oh no.

I had not spotted this recipe and was a bit annoyed at myself for missing it as I’d been looking for good strawberry recipes a few months ago for the end of my food styling course (oh yeah, keep meaning to write about that….will do…).  The English summertime came good with a last minute burst of sunshine well into October, stretching out the soft fruit season so at the start of this month I made the cake.

Oh. My. God. This is cake crack.  This is what Chris Morris was warning us about, people.

I know the strawberry season is over in England, but consider this a good thing – I am saving you from yourself and the inevitable piggery that will follow making this cake.  (Disclaimer: Erin and Lyndal, if you’re reading this, I take no responsibility for you decimating Aussie strawberry stocks over your summertime).

So I say read it, dribble a bit, remember the recipe and make it as soon as the strawberries appear next summer but make sure you’re got people round to eat it, or resign yourself to feeling quite sick as you pick away at it long after you should have stopped eating.  It really is that good. And is utterly simple to make, even given its US measures which I’ve oh-so-kindly converted for you below.

That said, I have every intention of making it with other fruits, just in the interests of experimentation…’s addictive, I told you.  I’ll be sure to tell you how the variations work out.

The Smitten Kitchen Strawberry Summer Cake recipe in full.

Notes from making it:

  • I couldn’t find barley flour (please tell me if you do) so used 100g plain flour, 75g ground almonds
  • 6tbsp butter = 85g
  • I found the suggested 200g sugar far too sweet and would suggest cutting to 150g
  • Start the oven off at 180/160 fan, then lower to 160/140 fan.
  • My strawberries pretty much all sunk, but it tastes none the worse for that. However the next day the fruity, jammy syrup started seeping out which although still tasting damn fine didn’t look as pretty so I’d suggest making and eating on the same day if it looking pretty matters.
  • Also on the prettiness front, serving from a pie dish is lovely but not v. practical, so if you don’t have a pie dish, a lined cake tin would be just fine and easier to slice and serve.
  • It comes out all puffed up, and then sinks down after about half an hour. Don’t be alarmed!
Puffed up
Sunken and ready to inhale….

Squashed soup

I get a bit overwhelmed with the number of pumpkins and squashes available at this time of year and am really not sure what the difference between them is.  A handy feature in October’s delicious. went some way in helping me choose crown prince as the one to make some chutney on the advice that its flesh doesn’t break up as much during cooking, and the quarter pumpkin left over from the chutney session has resisted mushiness in a curry I made last night, so I have high hopes for the chutney.

Otherwise, I am a bit rubbish in constantly falling back on the good old butternut – I know what it’ll taste like, how it behaves when roasted and steamed, and it comes in a neat size for a two.  My autumnal resolution is therefore to be more adventurous and try a new variety each time I buy squash over the coming months.

Consider this an entry level squash soup.  Clearly, you could go wild and make it with any of the varieties you come across, or if you’re feeling less brave stick with butternut for now.  One of the benefits of squash is how many flavours it will take on and work with, so if ginger and cumin doesn’t tickle your fancy, try sage, or garlic (or both), dried or fresh chilli, or some crispy bits of chorizo or bacon.  I also think a little bit of orange juice and zest would work well with the ginger and cumin combination and will try that out next time.

The crunchy topping is leftover from a cauliflower risotto recipe I made a couple of weeks ago (Jamie’s Italy, p141 – utterly delicious and prodded me into trying a few more recipes from his books). This chilli pangrattato has kept perfectly in a lock-n-lock box since then, and I’ve sprinkled a pinch or three onto bowls of soup and pasta wherever I fancied a chilli crunch. Definitely worth making if you’ve got the ingredients to hand, or try other ingredients – garlic and parmesan seem an obvious – and good – substitute but I’m sure you can come up with others.

Butternut soup with ginger and cumin
Prep time: 1 hour
Serves 4

1 butternut squash, diced
1 onion, sliced
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 litre of vegetable or chicken stock
2 cm fresh ginger
Yogurt or creme fraiche to serve

Crunchy topping
2 handfuls of stale bread (or frozen breadcrumbs – I keep bagfuls in the freezer)
1 tin anchovies in oil
3 dried chillis, green tops pinched off

Roast the butternut squash for 40 minutes to an hour.  (I did mine when cooking something else in the oven and kept the squash in the fridge for a few days until I wanted to make the soup).

Fry the onions in a little oil or butter over a low heat until soft and golden, which will take about 20 minutes.

Add the cumin seeds to the onions and fry for a few minutes until you smell the cumin, and then grate in the ginger (I freeze bits of fresh ginger and grate it from frozen – if you take it out of the freezer when you start cooking the end will start to soften enough to grate what you need. Then the rest goes back in the freezer).

Put the spiced onions, squash pieces and a litre of stock into a blender and blend until smooth,  adding more water if it’s too thick. Return to the pan and heat up again, and add salt to taste and pepper if you want to. (I’m trying to get out of the habit of automatically adding pepper to everything after watching the great Thomas Keller on Saturday Kitchen a few weeks back, who reminded me pepper is a flavouring in its own right whereas salt enhances existing flavours.)

If you want to make a crunchy topping, blitz all the ingredients in a food processor (do the bread first if it’s not already in crumbs, then add the anchovies and chillis). Fry in a dry pan for a few minutes until beginning to crisp up. You might need to add a little bit of olive oil as you do so if your bread was quite dry to begin, as mine was. The pangrattato will keep in an airtight box for weeks.

To make it look pretty and add a sharp note, stir through a spoonful of yogurt or creme fraiche, and a generous pinch of the spicy breadcrumbs. The breadcrumbs give a lovely crunch against the soup and a bit of a chilly kick for a cold day.

Haddock and spinach orzo

Oh, this could get confusing.  If a pearl barley risotto is called an orzotto, I really have to resist the temptation to call a pasta dish that looks like risotto and made with orzo (or risoni) pasta orzotto too.  More confusingly, orzo is Italian for “barley” but this dish is not made the same way as ris/orzotto, so it would not be an honest label anyway.

So, just orzo. I have read about it but not bought it, and don’t really remember seeing it in many supermarkets, so if you can’t find it, any small pasta shape will be equally delicious if not quite as risotto-esque in look.

We’ve been lucky to eke out a little bit of late summer in London, but today the clouds returned, and I believe the temperatures will imminently plummet to a more seasonal level, and this feels like a good bridging dinner as we ease into autumn.

This is a quick dish but does involve doing three things at once. If you’re not going to use the microwave to cook the fish, or at all nervous about doing three things at once, cook it before you get going with the pasta and sauce (poaching is simplest) to make sure it all comes together as the pasta is ready.

Haddock and spinach orzo
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time:15 minutes
Serves 2

300g smoked haddock
1 onion, sliced
1 clove of garlic, sliced
200g baby spinach, washed
200g creme fraiche, or a mix of cream and creme fraiche
150-200g orzo pasta, depending how hungry you are
Nutmeg to taste

Get a pan of water on for the pasta. The sauce will take the same time as the pasta cooking time, so you can do both at once.

While its heating, cook the haddock: for a dish like this, I use the microwave. Place the haddock on a plate and add a little bit (a tablespoon) of water. Cover with clingfilm and cook on a medium setting for two minutes. Check if it’s cooked through and if not, cook for another 30 seconds, and check again (the full cooking time will depend on how thick your fish is – I used a tail piece and it only took 2 minutes). Repeat until it’s cooked. Once cooked, set it to one side.

When the water has boiled, add the pasta and set a timer for the cooking time (mine took 8 minutes).

Gently fry the onion in a little oil. Add the garlic to the onion and fry for a few minutes more.  Add the wet baby spinach to the pan and move around until it wilts. Add the creme fraiche (or cream and cream fraiche) and a good grating of nutmeg, along with some salt and pepper. Go easy on the salt until you’ve added the haddock, as the fish may be quite salty already.

Once it’s all stirred together, add the haddock and break it up a bit with your spatula. Taste the sauce, and if you need to, add more salt, pepper or nutmeg to your own taste.

By now the pasta should be ready – drain (in a sieve, not a colander if you’re using orzo!) and add to the sauce.  Stir round gently and serve.

Kale, cobnut and goat cheese salad

This weekend felt very odd – my veg box was full of autumnal vegetables as the temperature soared towards 30.  Well, light barbecues and make salad while the sun shines say I.
We had a bit of a hot-potch barbecue with the current star of the grill: ribs done the Gourmet Grilling way with a dry rub marinade, slow oven cooking and a final barbecue “mop” over the top with a red cabbage slaw and this salad served as a starter while the ribs were finished over charcoal.
The goats cheese I got wasn’t as punchy as I’d like so would urge you to get something with a bit of a bite.  And since I think the cobnut season is over, hazelnuts would be a fine substitute.
Quantities below are two pretty big starter portions, plus a good sized lunch for me the next day, so I’d suggest it will give 4 normal appetite starters or a side, or serve 2 as a main.
Kale, cobnut and goat cheese salad
Prep time: 10 minutes if your nuts are shelled, 20 if you have to shell them!
Cooking time: 8 minutes
Serves 2 as a main, 4 as a side/starter
200g kale, washed
120g giant wholegrain couscous
300g cobnuts weighed with shells (I’d guess about 100g shelled weight)
200g goats cheese
Rapeseed oil 
For the dressing:
3 tablespoons natural yogurt
1 tablespoon tahini
Juice of half a lemon 
Cook the couscous according to packet instructions – it should take about 6-8 minutes.  Drain and toss in a little bit of rapeseed oil to discourage it from solidifying in a big lump.
While the couscous cooking, prepare the kale by cutting out the central stalk, and shredding the leaves into roughly 1cm widths.  Cook the kale in a saucepan with an inch or so of water, tossing it about until its evenly wilted and cooked. Drain and coat in a little rapeseed oil and set aside.
Toast the cobnuts in a dry frying pan until beginning to smell nutty and turning a bit brown (if you have the oven on anyway, stick them in there, but I think it’s unnecessary to turn it on just to toast some nuts).  Crush the nuts roughly in a pestle and mortar.
Whisk the dressing ingredients together and season with salt and pepper.
You’re now ready to assemble the salad. Stir the kale through the couscous and tip onto your serving plate.  Break the goats cheese into bits and scatter across, followed by the crushed cobnuts.  Finally spoon over the dressing in an artfully drizzly manner around and across the salad.

Enjoy the sunshine while it lasts, or ignore the rain and cloud and make it anyway, just wear a warm jumper to eat it while imagining it’s still summer.

What a carb up!

On Sunday, I cycled just under 120 miles for charity, but also just to see if I could do it. The answer is: I can! 
Three months of training saw me change from a girl who felt 9 miles was a decent distance to cycle, improving into one who battled the winds of the New Forest but still felt disheartened to have ridden only 40 miles over 5 hours, then one who managed an exceptionally hilly 76-miler through Cornwall, right up to 87 miles round the London countryside a week ago. And then on Sunday it was time for the Big One:  the Ride Around London encompassing Box Hill, the North Downs, and the Chilterns and featuring some epic descents and slightly scary B-roads. And the most alarming thing is, I think I’d do it again.
A big part of my training involved learning to eat in order to keep riding, which involved chowing down what I still class as fake food (energy gels and bars) but at least now I understand that it’s essential to keep my muscles working and mean that I am not on the verge of tears and/or vomiting 30 miles in (or in the case of Box Hill, up).  As an aside, I’d recommend Torq gels and Mule bars (especially the Black Cherry yogurt, and Apple Strudel and Pina Colada flavours respectively). And all that exercise meant a bigger appetite and some great post-ride dinners, the mother of them all being the double rib roast with a massive Yorkshire pudding followed by sticky toffee pudding (from Simon Hopkinson’s The Good Cook, an utterly delicious recipe but definitely serves at least 10!) I made for 6 of us on Sunday to celebrate finishing the ride!  Still not quite sure how I managed to do that…..
Anyway, as part of the preparation, we started carb-loading from Friday night and it seemed only right to go for this Ligurian pasta dish.  Its delicious on its own, but as you’ll see from the photo, I served it with some red mullet fillets, quickly fried in a very hot pan with a little oil in order to bulk up our dinner and help distract from the almighty portion of carb we consumed each (don’t worry, the quantities in the recipe below are for more typical appetites!).  If you’re serving it alongside some meat or fish, the quantities below will serve 4. 
Pasta with potatoes is not as heavy as you might imagine, and tasted really great with the last of the new potatoes. It’s also a great packed lunch option (cold or warmed through) by itself. 
Based on a recipe from River Cottage Veg Every Day by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, but made the lazy way with ready made (but still very good) pesto. I’ll make it his way next time.
Potato and pesto pasta
Serves 3 
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 12 minutes (or whatever your pasta instructions say)
200g new potatoes, scrubbed
200g pasta (small penne, rigatoni or gemelli are perfect but really any short pasta will do)
170g pot of good quality basil pesto (I used Purely Pesto) 
200g green beans, topped and tailed
100g cherry or tomato berry tomatoes, halved
Torn basil leaves to garnish
Extra cheese to serve: I’d suggest parmesan, or soft or hard goats cheese.
Get a large pot of water on to boil, large enough to hold the pasta, potatoes and beans. 
Slice the potatoes into slender sticks. You will be cooking the potatoes with the pasta so ideally they should be roughly the same width and length so they cook in the same amount of time.  As a guide, slice the potatoes into 0.5-1 cm slices lengthways, then slice again to get similarly sized sticks – thicker than matchsticks but thinner than a pencil. The length isn’t too important – if you potatoes are big, chop them up but they’ll break a little when you stir the pesto through.
By now, the water should have boiled, so add the pasta and potatoes to the pan and cook for 10-12 minutes, according to the pasta packet advice If your pasta is the type that cooks in a lot less than 10-12 minutes, cook the potatoes first, then add the pasta at the correct time.
Set a timer for the pasta cooking time and keep an eye on it – you need to add the green beans when there’s 3 minutes of cooking time left.  Chop the green beans into pasta-sized lengths, and add them when there’s just 3 or 4 minutes to go. 
When the time is up carefully drain the pasta, potatoes and green beans so as not to create a mashed potato sauce in the pan. Gently stir through the pesto and tomatoes, and serve with extra parmesan (some soft goats cheese, or grated hard goats cheese would also be great here), some freshly torn basil leaves and a slug of olive or rapeseed oil.