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.