Half Scottish, Half Japanese. Tempura Mars bar?

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I began writing this blog in October 2010 as a new father documenting food in his family. Before I knew it, I was in the final of MasterChef 2012. Now cooking is no longer just a hobby.

Friday, 31 December 2010

Hector's first Christmas

Here are some photos of Hector on Christmas morning. Also on Christmas morning, about 100 miles away, my friend Kitty gave birth to a baby boy - congratulations to her and her husband Richard.

Hector was exactly 3 months old on Boxing Day. My friend Chris was born on Boxing Day and likes to celebrate half birthdays, on June 26th. I wonder if Kitty will allow her son to do the same.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

A good dinner party

It was with mixed emotion that Hector moved out of his Moses basket and into his own cot. We are glad that he is growing but moving into the cot also meant that he had to move out of our room. It was nice to look back at photos of him during the early weeks when there was space in the Moses basket for him and a teddy bear.

Hector's first night in his cot, aged 12 weeks

Fortunately he has inherited his mother's ability to fall sleep anywhere and he is pretty reliable in sleeping between 7pm and 10pm, allowing us to enjoy our evenings. Last night we took him to the Lawson's for a dinner party. He slept in his pram while we enjoyed Alex and Claudia's hospitality. The food at their dinner parties is always very good, very satisfying but also interesting an unusual. They never serve hackneyed dinner party dishes that are easily prepared in advance nor home versions of dishes that are familiar on restaurant menus.

To start, we had Bloody Mary soup, served hot, with a good bit of chilli heat, cracked black pepper and chopped celery leaves, which gave a nice aromatic lift. Next came an Italian chicken dish, served with rice and green beans. It was bit like a chicken cacciatore, but lighter and served with gremolata (lemon zest, garlic and parsley) which gave the dish a lovely fragrance. Cacciatore means "hunter" in Italian and refers to the way a hunter might make a stew out of chicken or rabbit - with onions, tomatoes, red peppers, herbs and often some white wine.

I tend to prefer the savoury dishes, perhaps because for years I was allergic to eggs, which ruled out most desserts. Dessert consisted of caramelised, baked bananas, served with thick double cream and ground amarreti biscuits. It was delicious, although Claudia and I thought the texture would be even better if the biscuits were hand crushed rather than blended. I would like to try a version where you cross banana tarte tatin with the crunchiness of a creme brulee. Perhaps it can be my new strumble, but I don't know what to name it. Suggestions in the comments box below, please!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Easy roast soup

Yesterday, on the bank holiday after Boxing Day, I took Hector to Le Pain Quotidien. I reflected on my Christmas excess and contemplated a healthier 2011, over a pot of coffee and 2 slices of toast, spread liberally with butter and strawberry jam. Meanwhile, Jemma was taking a more practical approach by setting out on a 4 mile run - her first proper run since she stopped running over six months ago, while pregnant with Hector.

We are both planning to run a marathon in June. It is set in the Lewa Wildlife Reserve in Northern Kenya, so it will be hot, dry and at altitude. With only 128 runners last year, we are likely to be at the back of the pack. We have almost six months to train, but we have both decided that it will be a lot easier if we can shed a few kilograms!

I wanted to make a soup that would be low in fat but nourishing and filling. I also wanted one that was simple and quick to make. I had some ingredients that I thought would go well together: potatoes, garlic, cannellini beans and fresh herbs. The Spanish make garlic soup, thickened with potatoes or bread. I decided that thyme would go well with garlic and potatoes and that rosemary would go well with the cannellini beans, which are more of an Italian ingredient. For convenience, I put the garlic straight into a cast iron pot that could be left in the oven - less likely to burn if I had to attend to Hector and less washing up.

Potato and cannellini bean soup, with garlic, rosemary and thyme

Serves: 4
Preparation: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
Cost: £0.50 per portion

1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled
Pinch each of salt and mixed herbs
350g potatoes
1 tin of cannelini beans
600ml of water (about 2 tinfuls)
1 stock cube (chicken or vegetable)
2-3 sprigs of rosemary
2-3 sprigs of thyme

Stages 2 and 3
Stages 4 and 5

Stage 6

1. Preheat the oven to 170 celsius.
2. Drizzle the bottom of the pot with olive oil and season it with a few twists of salt and a large pinch of mixed herbs.
3. Add 5 peeled cloves of garlic and one chopped onion and put it in the oven for 10 minutes.
4. While the garlic is softening (both in texture and taste), peel 350g of potatoes and chop them up into smaller chunks.
5. Make a bouquet garni of rosemary and thyme by chopping the sprigs and tying them inside a small bag of muslin (to save fishing them out at the end).
6. Add the potatoes, bouquet garni, tin of cannellini beans, 2 tinfuls of water and a stock cube to the pan.
7. Cover with a lid and cook in the oven for an hour.
8. Blend with a handheld blender, season with salt and white pepper.
9. Garnish with olive oil and paprika.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Hector, 11 weeks old

Darbo bought Hector a Christmas pudding hat!


I experienced the addictive pull of umami this morning. We had no milk in the fridge, so I had toast for breakfast, instead of cereal.

I couldn't decide between marmite or marmalade, both of which I love. I particularly like marmalade on a croissant and we had a lovely homemade jar of it from our friends, Jon and Helen Lightfoot (collectively known as the Lightfeet).

I mulled the decision as I swished a tea bag around a mug trying to speed up the brewing process. In the end, I decided to have both - marmite first as a savoury course and marmalade second, as the sweet. Unfortunately, once I had tasted the moreish savouriness of the marmite, I could not readjust my taste buds ready for the marmalade course.

For me, that savoury addiction is umami.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Lamb kebabs with flatbread, baba ganoush and tzatziki

Middle Eastern version of fajitas

I classify this as a recipe for the weekend because the lamb benefits from some marinading and skewering the meat and vegetables can be fiddly. It can, however, be a quick weekday meal, if it has been prepared a day in advance and left in the fridge.

I had made baba ganoush (aubergine dip) previously and had some lamb chops in the fridge so I decided to make a Middle Eastern version of fajitas, using baba ganoush instead of guacamole and tzatziki instead of sour cream. I headed to North End Road in Fulham, which is lined with Middle Eastern delicatessens where you can buy lots of interesting imported foods. I bought some flat bread, some Turkish yoghurt and some cumin seeds.

I've always been a bit agnostic as to the difference between a fajita and a burrito, so I decided to look it up. Although 'fajar' means 'to wrap' in Spanish, the name originally comes from 'faja' referring to the cut of meat (skirt steak) that was used. 'Burrito' means little ass in Spanish, which is topical given that I am writing this in December. The name may have been suggested because the rolled up tortilla vaguely resembles the ear of a donkey. Either way, burritos are generally served closed and the fillings are slow cooked, such as braised meat and refried beans.

Serves: 2
Preparation: 30 minutes, plus at least an hour marinading
Cooking time: 15 minutes
Cost: £3-4 per head

4 Lamb chops, chopped into inch cubes
1 teaspoon of cumin seeds, freshly ground with a pestle and mortar
2 cloves of garlic, sliced or pressed
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon of olive oil

2 skewers per person (if using wooden ones, soak in water to prevent burning)
Marinated lamb
1 large red pepper, chopped into inch squares
12 button mushrooms
1 large onion, cut into 6 segments and then halved

To serve
Flatbread, microwaved or toasted in a dry frying pan
Baba ganoush (aubergine dip)
Spiced rice

Prepare the kebabs by alternating lamb, onions, mushroom and red pepper. Place under the grill and turn every 3-4 minutes to prevent burning. I used a silicon baking sheet, to prevent them from sticking.

You can make the spiced rice like you would a risotto, while the kebabs are under the grill. Finely chop a small onion and a stick of celery and fry in a little olive oil with a pinch of cumin seeds for 3 minutes. Add 100g of long grain rice and fry for a further couple of minutes. Add vegetable stock bit by bit, until the rice is cooked in about 10-15 minutes. Remove the kebabs from under the grill, add the juices from the lamb to the rice and sprinkle with some cayenne pepper.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Hector, 2 months old

I wasn't sure that I would enjoy the first few months of parenthood that much. People warned me that because new born babies don't do much, there isn't any interaction to mitigate the sleepless nights. I thought I wanted the stork to drop off a ready made baby - about a year old, one that sleeps through the night, scrambles around and wants to laugh and play. My friend Charlie, who had a daughter, Poppy, a few weeks before Hector, summed it up nicely in an email to me:

"Isn't it funny sharing your house with someone who can't talk but cries, keeps you up all night, demands attention, contributes nothing to housework and instantly triples the washing load. It doesn't sound all that appealing but somehow you still love them more than anything in the world."

Our friend Chompo went one further and declared it "Even better than winning Cuppers" (the inter-college rugby cup competition). Enough gush, here is a photo of Hector at 2 months old (or 9 weeks). Fortunately, he is awake more, smiles and babbles away when he is content. Jemma was even reluctant to put him in "proper, grown up" clothes - we got used to him wearing his little suits. However, we couldn't resist putting him in Sunday best, after receiving this lovely tank top. Please let me know if you see a similar one in a few sizes up, so that I can get a matching one for Christmas.

Hector, 9 weeks old

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Mid-week recipe: beef and mange tout stir fry

Apologies for radio silence. We are currently snowed in without internet access, but thanks to the wonders of modern connectivity, I realised that I am able to write and post this using my phone. We are in an isolated farm house in the Peak District, almost a mile from the nearest hamlet, Priestcliffe, which is half a mile from the A6 between Bakewell and Buxton (the former noted for the Bakewell Tart, the latter for its mineral water).

Fortunately, the central heating is working and we have enough food to keep us going until Friday, when Mr Tibble from Priestcliffe will hopefully come with his tractor and help get our car to the A6. We have plenty of leftovers because we were renting the cottage with friends, who were sensible enough to leave after the weekend before the heavy snowfall. Each of the four couples had been assigned a meal to cook for the weekend. Since I had prepared a fore rib roast of beef during my butchery lesson at the Ginger Pig, we volunteered to do Sunday lunch. Short-break rental cottages can be frustrating: blunt knives, imprecise electric hobs and a complete lack of even the most basic store cupboard ingredients. With that in mind, we packed salt and pepper mills, eggs, flour, a baking tray for the Yorkshire pudding, a carving knife, horseradish sauce and mustard (English, Dijon and wholegrain). We managed to leave London before 3pm, hoping to avoid weekend traffic on the M1. On the way, somewhere along the North Circular near Ealing, I realised we had left the beef in the freezer. Good thing it was Jim and Claudia who were responsible for dinner that night and not us. Claudia pan fried some chicken legs and thighs and served them with a tarragon and shallot sauce.

It snowed that night, but Chris and Kate also had to buy provisions for their chocolate fondant pudding and blueberry pancakes, so the three of us ventured into Buxton on Saturday morning. Supermarkets rarely sell a beef joint big enough to feed eight and invariably it is already off the bone, so I headed for the local butchers. Roasting beef on the bone is tastier and more fun for the table, but it needs to be chined to make it easy to carve. A good local butcher will chine it for you and French trim the ribs (scrape away any meat that might burn). He gave me the bones for stock and some trimmings to baste the meat. Three kilograms of beef was enough for eight people and cost the same, per kilo, as the supermarket. We served it with roast potatoes, roast parsnips, Yorkshire pudding, honeyed carrots and braised red cabbage with apples. And gravy, lots of gravy. Jim was quite right to point out that the ribs were as prized as the slices of beef and others were quick on the uptake. It could have served ten without seconds but what is a Sunday roast without seconds? You need plenty of gravy to warm up the seconds.

Although Jemma loves Sunday roasts, she doesn't like cold meat leftovers. There was a nice piece of chuck or brisket steak attached to some of the fat that the butcher had given me so I carved it off and set it aside for later in the week. Since there was rice left over from John and Helen's Thai Green Curry, I planned a beef and mange tout stir fry. It needs marinating, but preparation and cooking takes less than 15 minutes, so it makes a great mid-week meal. All the better that it cost virtually nothing.

Serves: 2
Cost: less than £2 per head
Time: 5-10 minutes preparation, 30 minutes marinade, 5-10 minutes cooking

300g beef (fillet tails or frying steak, but avoid stewing or braising steak)
3 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoon mirin
1-2 cloves of garlic
2cm of ginger
2-3 spring onions
1 packet of mange tout (or sugar snap peas)

Cut the beef into thin strips so that you can cook it quickly on a high heat. If you use a low heat, the beef will be chewy and tough, even if you buy expensive beef.
Slice or chop the garlic and ginger and add with the soy sauce and mirin to the beef. I used white wine vinegar and sugar instead of mirin.
Leave in the marinade for at least 30 minutes (or a day or two in advance).
Cook the beef and the marinade in a hot non-stick frying pan. After 2-3 minutes, add some spring onions (sliced on the diagonal) and the mange tout.
Stir fry for a further 2-3 minutes and serve with rice.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Eyes and ears

I would like to build a portfolio of restaurant reviews so would be grateful if you act as my eyes and ears by alerting me to new restaurants opening up.

Speaking of eyes and ears, but entirely unrelated to food, here is a nursery rhyme for my friend James who has just had his first son. It's pretty amusing in a non ironic way. Check out all the different sets and costumes! Hopefully Oscar will be smiling in the week before Christmas and singing him this nursery rhyme will help! Hector loves it! Congratulations James and Sophie!

Hector, aged 8 weeks

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Sunday snack: sausage rolls

Yesterday, on Saturday Kitchen, Rick Stein showed his recipe for corned beef hash, served with ketchup. Food snobs may have baulked but ketchup definitely has its place in the kitchen, especially with sausage rolls, as I'm sure you remember from your younger years.

Of course, you can buy them ready made at the supermarket and heat them in the oven, but it is so much more satisfying to make your own. They make a delicious snack with a drink in the evening.

Unless you wish to go the whole hog and make your own sausage meat and pastry, you need only three ingredients: puff pastry, sausage meat and an egg yolk. Dust the worktop and roll the pastry out to 3-4 mm thick. If you can't find sausage meat, use sausages and remove the skin. You can add some herbs, mustard or finely chopped apples. As you can see in the photo above, I was rather generous with the sausage meat - another benefit of making your own. Fold the pastry over the meat and press it closed using some egg yolk and a fork. Trim the ends and cut some vents into the top. Glaze with egg wash and place on a baking tray. I use a silicon liner which is guaranteed non-stick. Bake in the oven at 180 degrees celsius for 15-20 minutes.

Roll the pastry to 3-4 mm thickness
Fold the pastry over the sausage meat and seal

Cut vents into the top and glaze with egg
Bake on a non stick tray for 15-20 minutes until golden brown
Cut into bite size portions and serve with tomato ketchup.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Hector, 7 weeks old

After a bath

In his pyjamas, ready to settle in for an evening of X Factor

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Squid salad with red peppers, burdock and romanesco

There are quite a few pubs along the river between Putney and Hammersmith bridges but most of them, in my opinion, are duds that are too complacent to offer anything but a good location. The Crabtree is an exception - we ate there for the first time on Sunday and were impressed with the food, the service and the atmosphere. We have never had to put "family friendly" on our list of criteria, but ours was not the only pram.

Jemma had roast beef, I had roast pork and we shared a sticky toffee pudding. So we only wanted something light for supper that evening. I scoured the fridge and decided on a salad of things that needed to be used up: some squid, some red peppers, some burdock roots that my mum had grown and a romanesco that I bought at North End Road market (a romanesco is a cross between a broccoli and a cauliflower). It's nice when you come up with something that you haven't seen before in a restaurant or a recipe book, but it doesn't happen that often and when it does, there's usually a reason it hasn't been tried before. These particular ingredients, by accident of being in the fridge and near their best by date, worked surprisingly well together so I thought I would post the recipe.

Serves 2
Time 45 minutes
Cost: £2.50 per serving


1-2 whole squid
3 tablespoons of plain flour
Salt and pepper
1-2 red peppers
Half a romanesco
2-3 burdock roots
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons mirin (or sake with a teaspoon of sugar)
Salad leaves

For the dressing:
2 tablespoons walnut or sunflower oil
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar (or white wine vinegar)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1. Put the grill on high. Put the red peppers in a roasting dish under the grill. Put some sunflower or vegetable oil in another baking tray to heat up.
2. Wash the squid and cut into rings or triangles. Dry with kitchen towel.
3. The skins of red peppers should have started to char under the grill. If so, turn them.
4. Season the flour very generously with the salt and pepper. Coat the squid in flour and set aside.
5. Cut the romanesco into small florets and steam over boiling water for 5 minutes.
6. Remove the red peppers from the grill and leave to cool. Put some oil in the baking tray and leave under the grill to heat up.
7. Cut the burdock root into shards or julienne strips. Fry in a little oil, then add the soy sauce and mirin. Lightly braise for 5 minutes. Burdock has a unique taste and you may find it in Asian supermarkets. If not, use celery, for texture.
8. When the oil is hot, add the squid and grill on one side for 2-3 minutes.
9. Remove the romanesco florets, cool in cold water and drain. Rinse some salad leaves and toss them with the dressing and romanesco. Place in a shallow bowl.
10. Cut the red peppers into strips, removing any seeds. Add on top of the salad leaves and romanesco.
11. Turn the squid and grill on the other side for a further 2-3 minutes.
12. Add the warm burdock shards and squid on top of the peppers.

Masterchef The Professionals

I didn't make this, but I had to share it. I was stifling my hysterics last night when I saw it because Hector had just gone to sleep.


Sunday, 14 November 2010

Sunday recipe: sausages and lentils

Sausages and lentils

On Saturday mornings, I like to go to the street market on North End Road. For one British pound, you can get a large stainless steel bowl of fruit or vegetables. In one bowl, I collected 15 red tomatoes on the vine, 8 avocados in another and 2 large shiny aubergines in a third. £3. It is cheap because everything is seasonal and ripe. Quid pro quo, you have to go shopping without any particular recipes in mind, be a little flexible and inventive and make sure you eat or cook everything within a couple of days. Weekends are perfect for market shopping because there is time to cook and invite friends round.

I decided to make three dips: salsa bruschetta, baba ganoush and guacamole. I dunked the tomatoes into a saucepan of boiling water for a minute so I could peel and deseed them for the salsa. I discarded the skins and chopped the flesh for the salsa, but I had some left over, as well as all the seeds and tomato juice. I didn't like to waste them so I put them in the fridge, not yet knowing what I was going to do with them, and got on with making my dips.

On Sunday, Jemma went to the supermarket for things that you can't get at North End Road market, like nappies and baby wipes. She came back with two packets of sausages which were on special offer. I now had sausaged, some lentils in the store cupboard and the leftover tomatoes. so I decided to make a recipe I initially found in Delia's Frugal Food. It has become a favourite meal because it is a tasty comfort food, cheap and quick to prepare.

Delia's recipe serves 4 and takes about an hour to make, but I think you can make it inside 30 minutes and add more lentils so that it makes 6-8 servings. The extra servings can be frozen and reheated in the microwave later in the week.

Serves: up to 8 (depending how many sausages in a pack)
Time: 20-30 minutes
Cost: About £1 per serving


2 packets of sausages
1 packet (500g) of green or puy lentils (I used half and half)
1 litre of cold water
1 onion
2 cloves of garlic
1 tin of chopped or plum tomatoes (I used my left overs)
1 teaspoon of sugar
1 teaspoon of herbes de Provence (or mixed herbs)

1. In a frying pan, brown the sausages in a little oil over a medium heat.

1. Brown the sausages in a non-stick frying pan

2. Rinse the green or puy lentils in a sieve and put them into a large saucepan with the water. Bring to the boil then turn down to simmer for 10 minutes.
3. Finely chop the onion and garlic. Add to the sausages.
3. Add the onions and garlic to the sausages.

4. Add the tomatoes, sugar and herbs to the lentils. You should notice their sweet fragrance as they warm up.
4. I used half green lentils and half puy lentils.

5. By now, the sausages should have browned and the onions softened. Cut the sausages into half and tip them into the saucepan with the lentils.
6. Deglaze the frying pan with a glass of water or wine. This will help collect all of the caramelised flavours and also starts the washing up process! Add this to the saucepan.
7. Turn the heat down to low and cook for at least another 10 minutes.
8. Taste and season, but there should be enough salt from the sausages and the lentils are naturally peppery.

As I am slightly obsessed with using up left overs, I also threw in some roughly chopped red peppers for a speck of colour and extra sweetness. I think it is best served with some crusty white bread and butter, preferably cold and unsalted.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Three types of Japanese noodles

My training for the New York marathon was dealt a blow the day Hector was born. That Sunday, I was meant to be running a half marathon in London. I was planning to build up to 20 miles or more in October, then taper down towards Sunday 7th November. Since I managed one 15 mile run in October and not much else, the only training I could realistically embark upon as I entered the first week of November was carb-loading to build a store of glycogen in my leg muscles.

So last Friday lunchtime I headed with some glee to a Japanese noodle restaurant to start the carb-fest. I chose Koya on Frith street, a few doors up from Ronnie Scotts. In Japan, it is common for restaurants to specialise in a particular type of food. I have been to restaurants that serve only sushi, tonkatsu (deep fried pork in breadcrumbs), shabu shabu (where you cook thinly sliced meat in a broth at your table), yakitori and even eel. Koya specialises in udon noodles, which are the thick, white noodles. Koya brings variation to the menu by serving them hot or cold and with different combinations of meat and vegetables. Generally, people prefer to eat noodles hot served in soup when it is cold and cold served with dipping sauce when it is warmer. 

The other main type of noodle that you will come across in Japanese restaurants is soba. Because they are made with buckwheat flour rather than wheatflour, they are brown (or sometimes dyed green with green tea). The dough is rolled out and cut, rather than pulled, resulting in a thinner and flatter noodle.

I used to get mixed up between the two so I had to invent a mnemonic to remember the difference:

Udon: Ooh, Don Corleone, he's the big fat white one.
Soba: brown is a sober colour.

There are a number of other types of Japanese noodle and regional variations on both udon and soba noodles, but one other type that you will commonly come across is ramen. It is a noodle that was originally imported from China. It is usually yellow because it is made with eggs or kansui, a type of mineral water. Ramen is the noodle that is used in instant noodles, but it doesn't necessarily have to be curly.

I arrived in New York at midday on Saturday and within 8 hours had been to two restaurants and one cupcake shop. New York is a superb place for eating out, but I'll leave that for another day!

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Phileas Fogg

Hector in air balloon suit, 6 weeks old

Here is a photo of Hector wearing a new baby grow. Whenever I see air balloons I have a wave of nostalgia. When I was a young boy in the late 80s and early 90s, there was a brand of snack foods called Phileas Fogg. Like Monster Munch, the brand has been revived to find a new generation of consumers.

I remember them as a special occasion brand because they were priced at a premium and only available in off-licenses and small independent shops, rather than supermarkets. I looked forward to when my parents were having friends round because Phileas Fogg's Mignon Morceaux would often come out!

I had never read Around the World in Eighty Days but the packaging was exciting and mystical to a young boy. It featured a cartoon of Phileas Fogg in an air balloon and a letter from him explaining where in the world he found the snack, and the adventures he had trying to acquire it.

If you remember the original snacks, take the poll on the right to vote for your favourite.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Gidleigh Park

During Jemma’s pregnancy, friends, family and strangers offered advice, some solicited, on everything from epidurals, to push chairs, to parenting. We were, in truth, rather slow getting ready for our impending arrival. While we blamed the bombardment of advice and overwhelming choice of products, we were also busy denying that the growing bump might require anything more than a womb for transport and a placenta for nourishment.
Gidleigh Park

Stubbornly, we were not about to let pregnancy impinge on our ‘final’ summer together. So one piece of advice that we did take was to indulge ourselves in a Last Supper. I had resolved to visit Gidleigh Park ever since seeing an interview with Executive Chef, Michael Caines, on a TV programme about the secretive Michelin star rating system. The restaurant won two stars in 1999 and has retained its status ever since. This weekend, it was rated the best restaurant in the UK by the Sunday Times, above The Fat Duck.

The Michelin inspectors award two stars for “Excellent Cooking, worth a detour”. If, however, some of your worst arguments are born in the car, then I do not recommend a detour on a hot summer day. Especially if your companion is a heavily pregnant lady with reduced bladder capacity. The 35 mile journey to Chagford took two hours because the A385 was closed by an accident. Jemma has a love hate relationship with our sat nav at the best of times but we now relied upon it to find an alternative way along the single lanes of Dartmoor National Park.

We were already running late when we got stuck behind a sheep and played sheepdog for a quarter of a mile. Fortunately, humour tempered Jemma’s tantrum as it literally crapped itself when she got out of the car to shepherd it into a field. Finally a sign announced Gidleigh Park, with the message “Keep heart, you are still en route”. So it was with some relief, after almost two miles down a cul-de-sac, that we saw the black and white Tudor façade. After a few deep breaths in the car park and a visit to the Powder room, we were ready to sit down for our much heralded, self indulgent treat. Although half an hour late, we were instantly put at ease by being shown to a lounge where families and couples were enjoying an aperitif. The plumped cushions released a sigh on our behalf.

Jemma lowered the tone by picking up a copy of the Daily Mail and I followed by ordering a beer. More civilized clientele sipped on champagne and gin and tonics. We were presented with a warm pea soup and foie gras with rhubarb compote as we contemplated our choices. Both were delicious and a sign of good things to come. The first choice was whether to go for broke on the A La Carte or Tasting menus or economise with the Set Menu. Although there were three options for each course on the Set Menu and none were obviously duds, we both would have gone for the same main course, so I magnanimously volunteered to go A La Carte.
Foie gras with rhubarb compote

The atmosphere was wonderfully relaxing. Although it was the Saturday of a Bank Holiday in Devon, you knew that you would not be required to give the table back. The staff, while properly delicate and formal, put their guests at ease, easier said than done in a country house hotel, which can easily become stiff and stuffy. In the wood paneled dining room, guests were on their best behaviour and in their finest garments, celebrating a wedding, an anniversary or, in our case, the end of one chapter in our life and the beginning of a new one. Where other restaurants would have squeezed in additional covers, there were generous gaps between tables, which afforded privacy and added to the sense of luxury, without diminishing the sense of occasion that buzzed between tables.
Frogs' legs and crayfish, snail, garlic and nettle risotto

First, we were served an amuse bouche, a finely sieved tomato gazpacho, garnished with tiny cubes of cucumber and a basil oil which peppered the palate nicely. We both had to resist the urge to fill up on delicious home baked breads.
Free range chicken, chicken consommé, garden vegetables and truffled egg yolk

The service was reassuringly perfect: charming, friendly and not once did we feel interrupted. My starter sounded promising: frogs' legs and crayfish on snail, nettle and garlic risotto. The frog thighs retained their succulence in a light breadcrumb batter and the bed of risotto had a rich colour of chlorophyll. It was delicious but I couldn’t discern the snails, garlic or the nettles. Jemma had chicken in its own consommé, with summer vegetables and truffled eggs. The consommé was excellent, but not quite as memorable as a similar dish that we had in France. Although the vegetables and eggs were perfectly cooked, my starter won out.
Cornish cod, belly pork,  pea purée and a shallot and smoked bacon velouté 

By the time we were ready for main course, we had passed two deliciously leisurely hours. Jemma’s Cornish Cod with belly pork and pea puree was outstanding - I could tell from the way that her eyebrows lifted as the first mouthful passed her lips that my rose veal and sweetbreads with watercress puree and sherry cream sauce would struggle to compete. The meat was cooked perfectly but the puree was over salted which was a shame since I love the fresh, peppery taste of watercress. The peeled plum tomato reminded me of the ones you get in tins and didn’t add anything to the dish for me. As we traded, my own eyebrows silently expressed their assent that the cod beat the veal.
Rosé veal and sweetbreads, watercress purée, braised lettuce,
shimeji mushrooms, button onions with a Sherry cream sauce

Fortunately, the game of food envy ended in a draw, since we shared a dessert of strawberry mousse, jelly and sorbet. Normally, Jemma would rather spend 60p on a chocolate bar than £6 on a dessert in a restaurant but this was the finest dessert either of us have had in a very long time. We retired to the patio for coffee and petits fours and to absorb a wonderful afternoon. All around us, others were doing the same, enjoying the tranquility of the surroundings, taking the Boundary walk around the grounds, through the water garden and Bluebell Wood, each trying to make it last as long as possible.
Strawberry mousse, palmier biscuit with
strawberry jelly and sorbet, black olive and basil purée

The cooking is excellent, but the whole experience is special and well worth the detour. Highly recommended for a special occasion.
Petits fours

Friday, 29 October 2010

More crumble, please

The photo below of Hector sleeping with his arms in the air was taken at our friend Neil's house. He cooked a fantastic roast lamb, followed by crumble. As you may have realised, I love crumble.

There is a great recipe for pear and chocolate crumble on the Waitrose website. I have made it for several dinner parties and even Jemma, who generally doesn't like the combination of chocolate and fruit, likes this one. The chopped hazelnuts that go into the crumble mix complement both the pears and the chocolate. I cheat and use a ready made crumble mix. Lurpak would ask me whether I have any pride but it is convenient, especially for a weeknight dinner party when you have limited preparation time. You can peel and chop the pears the night before and leave them mascerating in the fridge overnight.

In my opinion, the only option is to serve it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Jemma doesn't like the combination of hot and cold, so prefers it with cream. Some people think that crumbles should be served with custard. Which do you prefer? Ice cream, cream, or custard? You can vote on the poll to the right.

Monday, 25 October 2010

A cooking mishap

On Friday afternoon, I received a very welcome phone call. My friends Tom and Tash had booked themselves a butchery class at The Ginger Pig. Unfortunately, Tash couldn't make it because of work and Tom asked if I would like to go with him. I had long earmarked butchery skills as something I would like to learn, so I jumped at the opportunity. In the days before Hector, I might have had plans for Friday night, but as all I had planned was trying to figure what to make with some pork tenderloin and a couple of leeks, I set off towards Marylebone on a Boris bike.

It was every bit as good as its reputation. For the first half of the evening, the two butchers, Perry and Borut, taught eleven of us about beef by demonstration and hands on experience, where we learned about dry ageing, different cuts and how to cook them. For the second half, we used saws and knives to prepare our own fore rib roast. We learned how to chine a rib roast so that you can carve it easily, how to tie it with string so that it doesn't fall apart and how to French trim the rib bones so that they don't burn. We left with vastly improved knowledge of beef, a fore rib roast that will easily feed six and a belly full of roast beef and merlot.

On Sunday, the pork tenderloin and leeks were still in the fridge approaching their use by date. I decided to use cling film and a rolling pin to flatten the loin so that I could stuff it and practise my tying technique. I gently fried some sliced leeks in a little butter. Once they were softened, I took them off the heat and added half a teaspoon of wholegrain mustard, half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a couple of tablespoons of Philadelphia and some grated cheddar cheese. I rolled the stuffing inside the pork loin with the help of some cling film and tried to remember how to tie the knots. The technique is difficult enough to teach in person, let alone describe in words. You place a ball of string in your pocket and tease the other end through a series of over and under manoeuvres to produce a slip knot that you can tighten around the meat. After a couple of attempts, I remembered the sequence and grinned with smug satisfaction as the first string tightened around the pork.

At this point, Jemma called me to see something Hector was doing but as I left the kitchen, I heard the rustling of carrier bags. Thinking it was a mouse, I stopped in my tracks and tried to pinpoint the noise. Each time I inched forward, the rustling continued, as though the mouse were daring me to find him. Jemma called out again so I decided to leave the mouse to his rummaging. About half way to the sitting room, I heard a thwack and ran back to try and catch him in the act. I returned to find my carefully rolled pork loin on the kitchen tiles, cheese and leek stuffing oozing through the seams. My "mouse" was attached to the pork at one end by a carefully tied slip knot. He left a trail running across the kitchen floor, behind the bin, down the corridor and into the ball of string in my pocket. If only I'd pinpointed the rustling sound, I would have seen the pork in its cling film, inching its way from the countertop to the floor, as I crept around the kitchen in search of the mouse. Next time I'll cut the string as soon as I've tied the knot.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Friday, 22 October 2010

Do not confuse a strumble

My earlier post on strumble proved popular, but most memorably because one reader confused a strumble with a strumpet.

A "strumble" is my combination of strudel and crumble.

A "strumpet" is an old fashioned word for a promiscuous lady.

"Stroppy" is a colloquial abbreviation of "obstreperous".

"Pram" is a colloquial abbreviation of "perambulator".

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Hector, 3 weeks old


Macerating the strawberries and rhubarb

With the remaining over-ripe bananas, I made a banana, honey and walnut loaf. It was okay, but I preferred the Banana and Chocolate loaf below and in any case you can find versions of both recipes elsewhere on the internet.

This dessert recipe, on the other hand, is one that I claim as my own. I couldn't find any recipe resembling it on the internet, nor had anyone come up with the name. A "strumble" is a cross between strudel and crumble.

Strudel consists of filo pastry layers with a sweet or savoury filling, most commonly apple, cinnamon and raisins. It is popular in Austria but filo goes back to the Byzantine Empire and is found in Middle Eastern pastries such as baklava.

Crumble is endeared by many Britons. It is a hearty and warming pudding to end a pub lunch, after a long walk in November or December, as autumn hands over to winter. Crumble exemplifies necessity as the mother of invention. During the war, when rationing meant that shortcrust pastry was out of the question, people improvised by rubbing a little margarine through flour and sugar to make a crumble topping. Unfortunately, I'm sure many of you will have had a stodgy crumble, probably at school, where the water in the fruit has mixed with the flour.

The inspiration for strumble came from a cooking lesson, where I learnt to cook the fruit and crumble separately. You pan fry the fruit and toast the crumble in the oven and only combine the two on the plate, moments before serving. The advantage is that it will never be stodgy: the fruit remains 'al dente' and the crumble remains light and crunchy. The smell of the flour and sugar gently caramelising will remind your guests of digestive biscuits.

The strudel bit takes a bit of preparation. Take 3 sheets of filo pastry and glue them together with a pastry brush and some melted butter. Cut the sheets into discs that are about the size of your palm. If you don't have a pastry cutter, use a knife to make squares. Take one of the discs and put a mixture of chopped or powdered nuts in the middle (such as almonds, hazelnuts, pistachio or walnuts). Brush the outside of the disc with butter and sandwich the filling with another filo disc. Make the sandwiches into little baskets using a cupped hand, or even better, a muffin tray. Bake in the oven for 5-10 minutes until they are crispy and golden brown. Don't worry if the layers come apart - it will keep the dessert light. Set  the baskets or discs aside and warm them later when you toast the crumble.

In a pan, melt some butter and sugar until it begins to caramelise. Add some chopped fruit. My favourite combination is apples and strawberries but remember that the apples will need a little longer than the strawberries. If you like to add some drama to your dinner parties, throw in some kirsch at the end and flambé the fruit just before serving. Spoon the fruit into the strudel baskets, and sprinkle the toasted crumble on top.

Normally, I would advocate serving crumble with a scoop of good vanilla ice cream because I like the combination of hot and cold. But in this case, I think a dollop of thick double cream, or clotted cream, works best.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Banana and chocolate loaf

Banana and chocolate loaf

For various reasons, mostly Hector-related, we didn't make it to the supermarket this week. So by the weekend, I faced a Shrove Sunday situation. I had some over-ripe bananas, some flour and some eggs which our friend Chompo had brought us from his hens at home, so I decided to make a chocolate and banana loaf. It took about 10 minutes to prepare and 45 minutes to bake.

Over-ripe bananas

1. Preheat the oven to 180 celsius.

2. In one bowl, mix the following dry ingredients together:

300g flour, sieved
75g caster sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp salt

3. In the other bowl, mix the wet ingredients together:

3-4 ripe bananas, mashed with a potato masher
2 eggs
50g butter melted in the microwave
50g melted white chocolate

The wet ingredients

4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and combine thoroughly. It should remain pourable, like cake mix, rather than stiff like dough.

5. Butter the inside of a smallish (15-20cm) loaf tin and fill it about 2 cm deep with the mixture.

6. Divide the rest of the mixture between the two bowls. Add 50g of melted dark chocolate to one of them and combine well. You should now have one 'white' mixture and one 'brown' mixture.

7. Add the 'brown' mixture on top of the base layer in the loaf tin and throw in some chocolate chunks which will reset as nuggets once the loaf has cooled. Next, use the remaining 'white' mix to sandwich the dark chocolate layer in the middle. Don't fill the loaf tin right to the top, as it will need room to rise.

Leave some room at the top because it will rise.

8. Put it in the oven. Take it out after 30 minutes and test it by putting a skewer into the centre. If it comes out with mix still on, bake for a further 5-10 minutes.

9.  If the skewer comes out clean, remove the loaf from the tin and put it on a cooling rack.

10. Enjoy a slice at breakfast, with afternoon tea, or at 3am while feeding the baby. 

I didn't leave enough mix for the top sandwich layer!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Comfort Food

Earlier this year, Heston Blumenthal created his version of Pot Noodles. Like any convenience food worth its salt, Pot Noodles are packed with umami. Umami was identified as a separate taste over 100 years ago in Japan and means "good flavour". It is a rich savoury flavour that is more than just salty. As well as Pot Noodles, you find umami in Marmite and many Asian foods.

Jemma and I have recently rediscovered Old El Paso fajitas. They are not only packed with umami but very simple to prepare, making a convenient mid-week meal for new parents. Fast and efficient food preparation is especially important this week. Hector is hungrier this week and we suspect it is because babies often have a growth spurt after 2-3 weeks. Also, we wanted to catch the second episode of The Apprentice.

The umami of the Smoky BBQ flavour pack, combined with the tang of the salsa, a soothing smear of guacamole and a cooling dollop of soured cream. For me, there is also the satisfying teeth-feel as you bite into the tortilla. It gets messy though, because although I can roll, I haven't mastered closing the end.

I would like to take tortilla folding lessons at Benito's Hat, where they manage to fit an unfeasible amount of ingredients into their burritos. Both of their outlets (Goodge Street and Covent Garden) are a short walk from SOAS, where I am taking Japanese lessons. I recommend the pork, it is super-slow braised with lime juice, balsamic vinegar, black pepper, cumin and oregano. Umami.

Canapés and snacks

I warn you now that the title of this blog is misleading. I had wanted to tell you about the canapés at the wedding of our friends Lydia and Timmy.

We took Hector to his first wedding on Saturday. As any new parents know, adapting to life with a new dependent requires advanced logistics. We are roughly following a Gina Ford routine of feeding him every three hours. This meant that by the time we'd fed him at lunchtime, driven to the wedding and had the service, it was time to feed him again. Although he slept through four hymns and Widor's Toccata, by the time we got to the reception after feeding him, we'd missed the canapés and could grab only a few minutes with the bride and groom before the guests were ushered to sit down.

So we set off back to London, ruing the missed canapés. Fellow guests assured me that they were delicious. Instead, Jemma and I stopped at the Sainsbury's by Junction 12 on the M4 and had a meal deal. After much deliberation, Jemma chose a Cheese Ploughmans and a Roast Chicken with Stuffing. Fortunately she also chose my favourite Monster Munch: I find Pickled Onion too eye-wateringly acerbic, Roast Beef too salty but, as Goldilocks might say, Flamin' Hot is just right.

Which are your favourite crisps? Vote in the poll, above on the right.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Hector, 6 days old

Dairy products

You learn a lot in a very short space of time when you become a parent. I had never heard of colostrum, fore milk or hind milk until last week.

When a baby is born, the mother produces colostrum, which is full of antibodies to help the baby's immune system. It is thicker and yellower than milk. I didn't take any photos of it but sure enough if you google it and click on images, you'll see that it is the clotted cream of the breast.

For the first few days of life, newborns sleep a lot and the colostrum is enough for their tiny stomachs. After a few days they develop a thirst and if the mother's milk hasn't "come in", the baby will certainly let you know that he is hungry.

Fore milk is thinner, like skimmed milk, and thirst quenching. The baby will gulp it down quickly, with no concern for the inevitable belching that will follow. Then comes the hind milk, which is thicker, like full fat milk and hopefully leaves the baby feeling full and ready for a sleep!

Hector, 2 days old

Sporting scratch mitts

Beetroot bhaji and flat champagne

It can be quite surreal becoming a father for the first time, especially if you have to leave your wife and new child on the maternity ward later that night. When I got home, I didn't know whether to cry with joy or put the telly on. So I ate a celebratory meal of beetroot bhaji and flat champagne.

We had a glass of champagne each before we went to Cafe 209 on Friday. I tried to save the rest of the bottle by using a vacuvin, but I must have vacuumed the bubbles out because when I came home on Sunday night, the champagne was almost flat. I ate it with beetroot bhaji. I gently fried small cubes of beetroot in cumin and mustard seeds and added it to a batter flavoured with garam masala. The beetroot's rich burgundy looked nice against the yellow of the turmeric but by the time I got home on Sunday, the beetroot had fully infused its regal colour into the batter.

Flat champagne and beetroot bhaji. Surreal.

Hector, 1 hour old

Foods that make you have a baby

Curry. Pineapple. Raspberry Leaf Tea. All are supposed to induce labour in a pregnant woman. Jemma loves pineapple but she wasn't prepared to pay £3.50 for one at Union Market, which has replaced TGI Friday in Fulham Broadway. Who are they kidding? The same people that are prepared to pay £8 for a rabbit, presumably.

A pineapple and a rabbit buys you two main courses at Cafe 209 on Munster Road. We went to this local institution last Friday night. Jemma had a Thai green curry (as she always does) and I had a beef stir fry (I normally have the lamb massaman).

By the same time the following night, we were in the labour ward of Chelsea and Westminster hospital. In fact, the last meal to pass Jemma's lips before Hector was born was sausage roll, chips and beans on Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately it passed her lips again in the early hours of Sunday morning when she felt nauseous during labour. The midwife offered her an anti-emetic, but the horse had bolted.

At 8.45am on Sunday 26 September 2010, Hector Aubrey Kojima arrived. We'll never know whether it was the curry, the raspberry leaf tea before bed, or the sausage roll, but my suspicion lies with the fact that Hector was already at 41 weeks' gestation.