Turning Veganise, I really think so....

So, to anyone who still pops by to say "Hi" (and we do still read all of your comments!), Paul and I have become Vegan! But the blogging fun doesn't stop there. We have decided to recreate many of our favourite meat-filled recipes to suit our new vegan lifestyle. And, of course, we're blogging about it:
So pop on over if you're thinking about making the switch or just want to give your body a rest from dairy or meat for a while. Or even if you just want to say "Hi" again.
You'll be glad you did :)

A Little Vegetarian Butchery

If you are a dyed in the wool, gnawing meat from the bone carnivore, it can seem a little daunting cooking for a vegetarian. After all, you can’t just serve them what you’re already having, minus the meat part. A plate of vegetables seems a little meagre.
When I was a vegetarian, during my misspent youth, my mum used to spend hours pouring over Linda McCartney cookbooks, trying to find recipes that made my diet not only interesting, but nutritious. And it must have worked – I was never ill ,although I was skinny as a rake (perhaps I should consider taking up vegetarianism again, in light of our current dietary issues). There wasn’t the vast array of vegetarian options that you have today. Perhaps through fear of the unknown, my mother refused to cook TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein) and to this day has a lifelong aversion to Tofu. Therefore, the bulk of my meals came from potatoes, cheese, onions and pasta. Fortunately for me, I adore anything starchy/carbohydrate heavy and it wasn’t until I started eating meat again that I actually put on weight.
But I digress. Whilst flipping idly through a copy of the Classic Cheese Cookery by Peter Graham, I came across a Jane Grigson recipe for an old Welsh classic, Glamorgan Sausages. There is little historical background as to how this dish first came into existence, however, it is fair to assume that it came about through necessity and frugality, rather than to please the local vegetarians.
Glamorgan Sausages are a rich combination of breadcrumbs, local cheese (Caerphilly is traditional) and leek or spring onion, seasoned generously with herbs and bound together with egg yolks. This mixture is then formed into small sausages, dipped in egg white and more breadcrumbs before being fried in a little oil, ‘til golden. We served them with a light tomato salad to cut through the richness of the cheesy sausages and indeed, they would be delicious served cold, dipped in ketchup or mustard too.
Instead of the Caerphilly, we used cheddar although you don’t want a cheese that is too strong or oily, but likewise firm with a good melting texture and robust flavour. We also thought that perhaps some frozen peas or sweetcorn stirred into the mixture would add a cheerful freshness. If you were feeling non-frugal, you could perhaps stir in some pesto instead of mustard, some toasted pine-nuts and roll the sausages in some Parmesan spiked breadcrumbs for an Italian feel.
But for now, here’s the basic recipe, to play with as you wish:
GLAMORGAN SAUSAGES – makes 6-8 depending on how large you roll them
145g Freshly Grated Caerphilly, Lancashire or Cheddar Cheese
120g Fresh White Breadcrumbs (although I used brown granary which gave the sausages a deliciously nutty taste)
2 Tbsp Chopped Leek or Spring Onion
3 Egg Yolks
½ Teaspoon Fresh Thyme
1 Tbsp Fresh Chopped Parsley
1 Tsp Mustard (I used Dijon)
Salt and Pepper
1 Egg White
Extra Breadcrumbs for Coating (Panko are delicious if you don’t have any fresh leftover)
Vegetable Oil for frying
Heat some vegetable oil in a frying pan, over moderate heat.
In a large bowl, mix together the cheese, breadcrumbs and leek or spring onions.
Stir in the egg yolks, herbs, mustard and salt and pepper. Mix well until a cohesive mixture is formed. Add a little water if the mixture is a bit crumbly, more breadcrumbs if too wet. The mixture should be moist but not sticky.
Form into 6-8 small sausages, dipping each into egg white and then into the reserved breadcrumbs.
Shallow fry them until they are golden on each side, about 5-7 minutes, and the middle is melting.

A Sweet (and Savoury) Treat

I have always had this thing for salty/sweet foods. As a wayward youth, I would dip McDonalds French Fries into their thick chocolate shakes. I have also been known to eat Kit Kat Chunky bars with a packet of Ready Salted Crisps. And of course, I adore anything that combines peanut butter with chocolate.
However, this strange compulsion did not manage to reach the dinner table. That is, until Sunday.
Cooking an ad-hoc and very late Thanksgiving Meal for Paul and a couple of friends, I was asked to prepare Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows, Green Bean Casserole and Cranberry Sauce. It was the least I could do, considering I refused to cook a large turkey (a turkey for four equates to lots of leftovers that just end up in the dogs bowl – not that they mind) and forgot to make any stuffing for the organic chicken I prepared instead.
Paul has been requesting Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows (known in the US as Candied Sweet Potatoes or Yams) every Thanksgiving that I’ve known him and for some reason I’ve never actually prepared it. This year though, I relented. I pulled out a recipe from Nigella Lawson’s Feast and got to work.
The sweet potatoes are drizzled with a little olive oil, wrapped in foil and baked at a reasonably high temperature until meltingly soft. The orange flesh is then stripped easily from the skin and whipped up with some butter, cinnamon, salt and lime juice. This mash (tasty enough to serve alone) is then topped with marshmallows and seared in a really hot oven for 10 minutes until melty, crusty and browned. And that first taste? It is like an orgasm of flavour on the tongue. Every mouthful offers complete and utter satisfaction, whether you smear a dab of it on the chicken, or mix it with a little mashed potato or just savour it alone. Quite simply, it is the best side dish I have ever tasted, all other dishes fading into simple mediocrity when pitched against this ambrosial treat.
Furthermore, the dish transported me, via its heady, scented taste to America, where I have never eaten them before. I have, however, smelt this cinnamon sweet smell all over the US at Thanksgiving. A simple, sweet aroma that I truly gave thanks for.
The best thing about Thanksgiving? I never thought I would say this, but the leftovers. Our guests were sitting on the fence about the Sweet Potatoes (but they loved the Green Bean Casserole) and apparently aren’t as fiendishly desiring of vegetables in various states of mashed-ness. The next day, we fried up the mashed potato and mashed parsnip (another fantastic way to serve this underused vegetable: boil until tender, then mash with lots of butter, salt, pepper, nutmeg, dash of maple syrup and a small glug of brandy or rum) with some leftover brussel sprouts: a slightly different version of Bubble and Squeak. This was served alongside the reheated Sweet Potato Marshmallow nectar (still just as good), and some baked beans. Sure, it was a little strange but it was more than just a little great. And not just for Thanksgiving.

If the taste alone isn't enough to get you try it, there are the health benefits from eating Sweet Potatoes (if you minus the marshmallows). They are rich in complex carbohydrates, Vitamin C and Vitamin B6 plus Beta Carotine. In 1992, the Sweet Potato ranked highest, compared to other vegetables, for nutritional content and benefit. They are incredibly good for diabetics (definitely minus the marshmallows!) as they can stabilise the blood sugar levels too.
And if you’ll excuse me, I have to go out and buy some Sweet Potatoes – I have half a bag of marshmallows that desperately need using up.

Now, A Reason to Use Up That Sherry....

If you have ever wondered what to do with the bottle of sherry that your friend brought back from Spain, I (or rather Delia Smith) have the perfect recipe.
I am not a big sherry drinker, finding it too heavy and sweet for sipping purposes. However, it is an excellent all-round alcohol for cooking with, whether you want to add a bit of depth to a stir-fry or gravy, bolster a rich, meaty ragu or to bring out the natural sweetness of berries. You might even use it in a trifle.
Sherry, or particularly Marsala, is used to it's greatest success though in that most traditional of all Italian sweets, Zabaglione. A simple mousse-like dessert, comprising of egg yolks, sugar and Marsala (but other sweet wines can be used for different flavour) whisked in a double boiler, until light and fluffy. There is a charming story from 15th Century Italy that describes the initial process of how Zabaglione was discovered. A skillful and fierce Umbrian nobleman called Giovan Baglioni (known locally as Zvan Bajoun) was forced to keep his army of men happy (apparently they would switch sides if they were not given suitable rations – a case of politics being ruled by the stomach) when they were fighting and, discovering that he only had some eggs, honey and sweet wine at his disposal, ordered his cooks to boil everything in a pan and serve up the resulting dish. The solders so enjoyed this sweetened, slightly frothy mixture that they asked for seconds, slept soundly that night and fought with such vigour the next day that the surviving opposition asked them what was their secret. They simply replied Zwanbajoun. Over time, the name has been refined to Zabaglione, the method has been made simpler and the honey replaced with sugar. However, It is still considered as a “pick-me-up”, no doubt due to the high alcohol content, although I am not sure if the Italian army are still served it as part of their daily menu!

Delia Smith, Britain’s first true TV domestic goddess, has generously visited Harry's Bar in Venice on our behalf, sampled the many Venetian treats they have to offer and returned with a truly stunning torte that is both simple and wonderfully delicious, Harry's Bar Torta di Zabaglione.
An all in one, featherlight sponge cake, so light as to be almost of pudding texture, filled generously with a rich, thick Zabaglione-inspired cream.
The cream needs to be chilled for at least two hours, so make this first. The cake can also be made a few hours in advance and wrapped in clingfilm when cooled, ready to cut in half when you are.
It is simple enough to serve for a casual afternoon tea on Sunday but looks glamorously pale enough to be served for a special occasion too. In her book, How to Cook Pt.3, Delia ices the sides but leaves the golden top plain, just dusted with icing sugar. However, you may find, as I did, that this was a little hard to achieve. Despite being chilled, the filling remains just a bit too creamy to give a perfect presentation to the cake. I simply slathered it on all over. And you will have cream left over. Just eat it with a spoon. Cooks treat, of course.

Oh, and it is just as good a couple of days later, providing it has been well fridged. At this point, heavily laden with the boozy cream, it really does become pudding like. And terribly, wonderfully, moreish.
The perfect Pick-Me-Up!

HARRYS BAR TORTA DI ZABAGLIONE from Delia Smiths How to Cook Book 3
For the Zabaglione filling:
3 large egg yolks
3 oz (75 g) golden caster sugar
1½ oz (40 g) plain flour, sifted
9 fl oz (250 ml) Marsala
12 fl oz (340 ml) double cream
For the cake:
4 oz (110 g) self-raising flour
½ level teaspoon baking powder
2 large eggs, at room temperature
4 oz (110 g) very soft butter
4 oz (110 g) golden caster sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
a little sifted icing sugar, to dust

You will also need a 1½ in (4 cm) deep sponge tin, 8 in (20 cm) in diameter, lightly greased and the base lined with silicone paper (baking parchment).
First of all make the Zabaglione filling. Using an electric hand whisk, beat the egg yolks for 1 minute in a medium bowl, then add the sugar and beat until the mixture is thick and pale yellow (about 3 minutes). Next, whisk in the flour a tablespoon at a time, mixing in very thoroughly, then gradually whisk in the Marsala.
Now tip the mixture into a medium heavy-based saucepan and place over a medium heat. Then, cook the mixture, stirring constantly, until it has thickened and is just about to boil; this will take about 5 minutes. Don't worry if it looks a bit lumpy, just tip it into a clean bowl, then whisk until smooth again. Let the custard cool, whisking it from time to time to stop a skin forming. When it is cold, cover with clingfilm and pop in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 3, 325°F (170°C).
Meanwhile, make the cake. To do this, take a large mixing bowl, place the flour and baking powder in a sieve and sift into the bowl, holding the sieve high to give them a good airing as they go down. Now all you do is simply add the other cake ingredients to the bowl and, provided the butter is really soft, just go in with the electric hand whisk and whisk everything together until you have a smooth, well-combined mixture, which will take about 1 minute. What you will now end up with is a mixture that drops off a spoon when you give it a tap on the side of the bowl. If it seems a bit stiff, add a little water and mix again.
Now spoon the mixture into the tin, level it out with the back of a spoon and place the tin on the centre shelf of the oven. The cake will take 30-35 minutes to cook, but don't open the oven door until 30 minutes have elapsed. To test whether it is cooked or not, touch the centre lightly with a finger: if it leaves no impression and the sponge springs back, it is ready. Remove it from the oven, then wait about 5 minutes before turning it out on to a wire cooling rack. Carefully peel off the base paper, which is easier if you make a fold in the paper first, then pull it gently away without trying to lift it off. Now leave the sponge to cool completely.
To assemble the torta, whip the double cream in a large bowl until stiff, then add the Zabaglione custard to the bowl and whisk again until thoroughly mixed. Place the cake flat on a board, then, holding a serrated palette knife horizontally, carefully slice it into 2 thin halves. Next, reserve 2-3 heaped tablespoons of the Zabaglione filling to decorate the sides of the cake and spread the rest of the filling over the bottom half, easing it gently to the edges. Place the other cake half on top and press down very gently. Before you spread the mixture on the sides of the cake, it's a good idea to brush away any loose crumbs, so they don't get mixed up in it. Now, using a small palette knife, spread the reserved filling evenly all around the sides of the cake. Finally, dust the top with the icing sugar before serving. If the cake is made and decorated ahead of time, store it, covered, in the fridge (to keep it firm), but remove it half an hour before serving
(recipe taken from directly from Delia's website, as I cannot possibly improve on it!)

A Sweet Thanksgiving Pt.3

The third and final sweet treat of Thanksgiving was a spin on the classic Pumpkin Pie.
I find Pumpkin Pie to be a little anti-climatic, possibly because it is not part of my foodie heritage and to that end, Paul is not a big fan of our Christmas Pudding.
It is an interesting nuance of our foodie cultures that we expect certain foods at specific times of the year, otherwise it would seem as though something were missing. For example, I loath Christmas Cake, can't stand it, but I love the stiring and baking ritual of it, the smell of spices filling the kitchen as it cooks.
Likewise, I find the pumpkin/eggy mixture to be a little cloying. One slice is always more than enough. Curiously, I adore Egg Custard Tarts, with their speckly Nutmeg tops, and Pumpkin Pie is merely an orange extension of that ancient tart.
The Pumpkin Pie is steeped in history, just as our Christmas Pud is: the first European settlers (eventually deciding to live on the Plimoth Plantation in New England in 1621) discovering how the American Indians made great use of this fantastically shaped gourd, the Pumpkin, found it incredibly versatile, and used it in both sweet and savoury dishes.
The American love of pies goes back many hundreds of years so it comes as little surprise then that the settlers used simmered pumpkin flesh in a pie of sorts. In those formative days, they would not have had ovens, so they may have filled the hollowed out shells with the flesh simmered with milk, honey and spices. This would have then been baked in hot ashes and produced the earliest variations of Pumpkin Pie, albeit a pie without a crust.
The first mention of a pie crust (or paste) being filled with pumpkin, was in 1651 and not by a Settlement wife, but by French chef, Francois Pierre la Varenne:

"Tourte of pumpkin - Boile it with good milk, pass it through a straining pan very thick, and mix it with sugar, butter, a little salt and if you will, a few stamped almonds; let all be very thin. Put it in your sheet of paste; bake it. After it is baked, besprinkle it with sugar and serve."

In 1796, some 140 years later or thereabouts, the first American Cookbook was published, American Cooking by an American Orphan (actually Amelia Simmons) and she notes, not one, but two recipes for Pompkin Pudding (sic):

Pompkin Pudding No. 1. One quart stewed and strained, 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg and ginger, laid into paste No. 7 or 3, and with a dough spur, cross and chequer it, and baked in dishes three quarters of an hour.
Pompkin Pudding No. 2. One quart of milk, 1 pint pompkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.

Her charming recipes are very similar to those we utilise today, securing the Pumpkin Pie’s place in culinary history as a true American Classic. However, being a classic simply isn’t enough for some of us and this age-old recipe has to be tweaked, primped and altered beyond all recognition. Enter Ina Garten.
I love Ina Garten and her carefree style of cooking. Her portion diagnostics occasionally leave a little to be desired for those cooking only for 2 or 4, but a little modifications usually reigns them back in.
In her latest book, Barefoot Contessa at Home, she gives us a winning alternative to Pumpkin Pie in the form of Pumpkin Parfait. Whilst she doesn't exactly sell it to me by referring to it as "...certainly not the worst dessert I'd invented," it is in fact much better than you might imagine.
A whippy, light concoction of tinned pumpkin spiced up with nutmeg and cinnamon of course, a whole cup of two different types of sugar (brown and white), whipped, sweetened cream, a good slug of rum, and for gelatin virgins, a gentle primer in the form of a sachet of, well, gelatin.
This is layered up with more whipped cream and ginger biscuits, to form a deliciously creamy dessert that deserves more than one outing a year.
Ina suggests making the Ginger Cookies (recipe in aforementioned book), but being short on time, I bought some Stem Ginger Cookies which worked really well. At a push, Ginger Nuts (Ginger Snaps) would be great too. The dessert is incredibly rich and certainly needs the bite of something crunchy so don’t be afraid to stack up the ginger biscuits.
One last proviso – if you are serving this dessert for ‘special’ guests, don’t do what I did and forget that you don’t actually have any sundae glasses. As you can see, we had to make do with a beer tankard (yes, of course we have those!), a wine glass and a plastic tumbler. We call it ‘homestyle’.
Here’s the recipe, post-Thanksgiving or not, it’s a great way to use up any old cans of pumpkin you might have lying around, or to utilise them big ol’ gourds that you wondered if you could actually manage to grow this year…

PUMPKIN PARFAIT from Ina Gartens’ Barefoot Contessa at Home
¼ Cup Rum (I used Brandy, which was just as good)
1 Sachet Gelatin
1 x 15oz Can of pure Pumpkin (not pie filling)
½ Cup Granulated Sugar
½ Cup Light Brown Sugar
2 Large Egg Yolks
½ Tsp Cinnamon
¼ Tsp Ground Nutmeg
Zest of One Orange (I omitted this due to lack of oranges)
½ Tsp Salt
1 ½ Cups Double (Heavy) Cream
1 ½ Tsp Vanilla Extract
2 Cups Whipped Cream plus more for topping
Box Ginger Cookies (or use your own recipe)
Crystallised Ginger for Decoration (optional)
Place the rum/brandy in the top half of a double boiler. Sprinkle with the gelatin and leave to one side for 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, half fill the bottom half with water and bring to a lively simmer.
In a large bowl, whisk the pumpkin, sugars, egg yolks, orange zest, spices and salt. Set to one side.
Place the pan with the rum/brandy and gelatin over the simmering water and cook until the gelatin has completely dissolved.
Whisk immediately into the pumpkin mixture.
In another bowl, whisk up the double cream with a little icing sugar and the vanilla until it peaks softly. Fold into the ochre pumpkin mix.
To assemble, put a thick layer of the pumpkin mousse into the bottom of your sundae glasses (or beer tankards), then a good gloop of whipped cream, then a couple of ginger biscuits. Continue until all of your mixtures are used up. The parfaits will look gorgeously swirled and peachy.
Cover with cling film and chill for at least four hours, preferably overnight.
To serve, top with more fresh whipped cream and crystallised ginger crumbled.

A Sweet Thanksgiving Pt.2

The second of our Sweet Thanksgiving desserts, Banana Cream Pudding, holds a very special place in my heart for two reasons. Going way back to my childhood, a stripped down version of Banana Cream Pudding, sliced banana smothered in packet custard. A virtually instant and gratifying finish to a homely meal. I feel particularly fond of Banana Custard because it is my grandfather’s favourite pudding; in fact anything with bananas is his favourite. My grandad was the one who first showed me how to slice a banana before peeling it, and afterwards he would have to feign mock surprise as I demonstrated my new trick to him.
The second reason I am so fond of Banana Cream Pudding is that the true ingredients of the dish, Vanilla Pudding and Nila Wafers remind me of my first road trip to the US with my then-to-be husband, Paul. We put on pounds travelling around US, eating Nilla Wafers from the box and scooping out various flavours of Pudding with our our already Cheetoe-orange strained fingers. I later returned to the UK with boxes of powdered pudding in all sorts of lurid flavours and broken Nilla Wafers that hadn’t entirely survived the manhandling of the luggage handlers.
I hadn’t eaten banana custard OR Nilla wafers OR pudding for some time and Paul had requested that his Mom send us a box of the wafers over in a large care box containing several now-well thumbed issues of Gourmet Magazine. Suffice to say, the request for Banana Cream Pudding was soon demanded but I was given one proviso: I cannot use custard, I have to find a recipe for Vanilla Pudding. Just between me and the UK readers, custard is a fairly good representation of Pudding, particularly if you make it really quite thick, or use a cartoned brand (they keep forever – literally – in the pantry).
However, in this instance, I conceded and found a recipe on the Nabisco (home of the Nilla Wafer) website. Pudding is easy to make, flour, sugar, milk, egg yolks whisked up in a double boiler until the lumpy gloop turns smooth and thickens. It is then liberally, generously blanketed over sliced bananas and Nilla Wafers (there is no UK substitute for these – and, even though I am a biscuit connoisseur, I cannot think of a similar alternative. Some of those fancy Breton-style Butter rich shortcake biscuits would be just as yummy though), covered with Meringue and flashed briefly in a hot oven to brown. I thought that a sweet meringue topping would be too much sugar so replaced this with another childhood favourite, Dream Topping.
Dream Topping is our nearest equivalent to America’s Cool Whip, an amazing demonstration of what a evil genius with a craving for whipped cream but no refrigerator and open access to a cupboard full of chemicals, can produce. Both Dream Topping (a powder that you whisk up with milk) and Cool Whip are airy creams, with no hint of dairy flavour and a slightly sweet demeanour. I find both of them completely alluring and perfect for this already calorie laden pudding.
You can, of course, use regular whipped cream or go for the meringue option.
For a real retro treat, here’s how to whip up Banana Cream Pudding:
serves at least 6-8
5 Bananas, peeled and sliced, sprinkled with a little 7-up or lemon juice to stop them browning
1/2 Cup Sugar
1/3 Cup Plain Flour
Pinch Salt
3 Egg Yolks (reserve the whites for meringue topping, if making)
2 Cups Milk
½ Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
Box Nilla Wafers (or similar buttery-style biscuit)
Whipped Cream or a Sachet of Dream Topping or Cool Whip (if not making the meringue)
In the top half of a double boiler, whisk together the flour, sugar and pinch of salt. Then whisk in the milk and egg yolks. Place over the bottom half of the double boiler (which will need to be quarter filled with water and brought to a brisk simmer).
Whisk mixture for 10-12 minutes, or until thickens.
Pour a little of the mixture into a heatproof serving dish, layer with the Nilla Wafers or biscuits, then a layer of sliced bananas.
Repeat this layering twice more, ending with the Pudding.
If you are going for the cream topping, slather all over the top and decorate with some more Nilla Wafers and slices of banana.
If you want to make the meringue topping, whisk the egg whites until stiff, pour in a quarter of a cup of sugar and whisk until stiff and glossy. Spoon over the pudding, taking care to cover over all the edges and bake in a pre-heated oven (175c) until browned, about 15-20 minutes.
Spoon into large bowls and straight into mouth.

A Sweet Thanksgiving Pt.1

Just because Paul and I ‘eat sensibly’ during the week doesn’t mean that we don’t treat ourselves at the weekends. And this weekend was no exception. In fact, I probably went a little OTT with the sweet treat, making not one, not two but three puds!
OK, so one of them had to be made for Paul’s pumpkin Thanksgiving treat. The other two, well, I just felt like making them.
Here then, is the part one of our Sweet Thanksgiving Weekend one off series: Cafe Sperl's Plum Squares.
The recipe, taken from Diana Henry’s wonderful Roast Figs, Sugar Snow, has been tempting me for some time. I haven’t done a lot of baking for a while and this recipe seemed like a gently re-introduction into the fine world of blending cream, sugar and flour to produce something sublime.
This recipe involves a vanilla scented shortcrust base that is easily whipped up in the food processor (although could be mixed up by hand), chilled for half an hour and then pressed into a baking sheet. It is then topped with stoned and halved plums or damsons, sprinkled with a generous amount of sugar and baked until fruit is verging on sweet, sticky collapse. The fruity shortbread is then glazed with hot apricot jam, left to set and cut into squares.
Aside from the dazzling, gem-like finish, this is otherwise a fairly unassuming looking cake/biscuit(?), with a flat base. Once you bite through the sticky tart and sweet fruit into the fragrant crumbly pastry, you are transported (with a bit of imagination) to a baroque-style café in Vienna, sipping hot chocolate and watching children sweep by in velvet coats on ice skates.
There is something timeless about these simple sweetmeats, so easy to make and yet incredibly complex on the taste buds.

I used some frozen plums left over from late Summer, but you could also use slices of pear or apple, fresh blackberries, greengages or gooseberries. The fruit doesn’t need to emit too much liquid as it cooks, lest you should suffer a soggy bottom, although a light dusting of fine cornmeal (polenta) on the base before you layer up the fruit should soak up too much ooze if you really fancy trying it with strawberries or raspberries.
A simple, sweet treat that can be made the day before you want to serve it, looks just as charming served casually with a cup of tea or coffee as with a generous slug single cream for a decadent pudding.

CAFE SPERL'S PLUM SQUARES (from Diana Henry's Roasted Figs, Sugar Snow)
200g Plain Flour
100g Butter, not fridged
175g Caster Sugar
1 Egg Yolk
1 Tsp. Vanilla Extract
675g Plums or other soft fruit, de-stoned if necessary
2 tbsp Sugar
200g Redcurrant or Apricot Jam
To make the base, place the flour and butter in a food processor fitted with the plastic blade and process until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and salt, mix again.
Add the egg yolk and vanilla and process until it forms a rough ball.
Scoop out of the processor bowl, form into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and chill for half an hour.
Preheat oven 180c.
Halve the plums and de-stone.
Into a lined baking sheet 8 x 12" square, press the dough out.
Press the plums into the dough rectangle in rows, making just one layer.
Sprinkle with the 2 tablespoons of sugar and bake for 35-45 minutes until the fruit is soft, sticky and caramelised. The pastry, where exposed, should be a golden brown colour.
Leave to cool.
Melt the jam with a little water and brush generously over the fruit. It should be gleaming and glossy.
Leave to set, then cut into 3" squares, larger or smaller if you'd prefer.

The Puddings Start Tomorrow!

The joy of soup is in its relative simplicity, quickness and the instant gratification you get from the very first spoonful.
But, when I tell my Mother that I’m cooking soup for tea, she’s quick to point out: “how on earth will Paul be full on that?”
I have noticed that certain people from a certain generation feel that meat and two veg is the only meal you can serve your hardworking husband when he gets home from work.. After all, a strapping young man like that needs his nourishment.
What most people don’t know about Paul though, is that he was a vegetarian in his youth and in college survived on a diet of boiled rice and soy sauce. For which I thank him profusely.
Our conjoined lives are made that much easier by our non-committal to a raging, carnivorous desire to eat red meat garnished with the odd overcooked sprout or soggy carrot. We don’t spend our evenings gnawing on ribs and tossing the bones to our drooling, anticipatory hounds, or nibbling chicken wings clean, cartilage, tendons and all.
That’s not to say that we don’t have our moments. On next weeks menu is Oxtail Soup, made with one of the most gelatinous, meaty and flavoursome parts of the bovine beastie. And any leftover meat I plan to throw into a hearty Mulligatawny Soup.
But for last nights meal we tucked into steaming bowls of Green Thai Curry Soup, bolstered generously with Mange Tout, shredded chicken breast, French Beans and Beansprouts.
And that’s the thing about soup. You think it’s never going to be enough, but as you reach the bottom of the bowl, scooping out all the best bits that have sunk to the bottom, concealed like buried treasure beneath the pale green broth, you start thinking: “I couldn’t manage another bite. Well, maybe a couple of peanut M&Ms.”
For those of you who are Thai Green Curry virgins or have only used the stuff in jars, I would suggest that you try to make your own paste. Most ingredients are readily available from your local supermarket now and it keeps for a couple of weeks in the fridge in a seal tight container (I keep mine in the little coffee/spice grinder I make it in), and in fact, improves over time, becoming more mellow and flavourful. At a push, the jarred pastes are generally quite good.
One final note: the vegetables and meat recommended are just that: a recommendation. We use what we have lying around. You could use prawns instead of chicken, or one of those mixed seafood selections (just remember to put them in at the very last moment lest the squid turn into rubber). Thinly sliced beef or pork would also add a good flavour to the soup. And just for the record: the meat is entirely optional. Vegetables could include fresh thinly sliced Shiitake Mushrooms, baby corn, Bok Choi, Aubergine, Courgette or perhaps even some diced squash. I also place some Straight to Wok noodles in the bottom of the bowls and pour the soup over the top. You could boil up some regular dried noodles if you’re not a fan of the Straight to Wok ones.
TIP! A way to make the soup even more nutritious and savoury is to add half a block of creamed coconut to a pint of boiling chicken/fish/vegetable stock and then stir in a tablespoon of crunchy peanut butter. Whisk together well then add to the paste where you would normally add the coconut milk.
serves 4-6
Paste (from Nigel Slater's Appetite)
4 lemongrass stalks, tougher outer leaves discarded

2-6 green chillies (the 3” long ones), deseeded or not depending on your heat tolerance
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2" galangal or ginger, peeled
2 shallots or half a small white onion, peeled, cut in half
4 tbsp chopped coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp chopped lime zest
1 tbsp nam pla (Thai fish sauce)
½ tsp ground black peppercorns
1 Tin Coconut Milk
400ml Chicken/Fish/Vegetable Fish Stock
500g Vegetables: baby corn, mange tout or sugar snap peas, halved Green Beans, Beansprouts, Diced Aubergine (nb: If you are using Aubergine, I would recommend frying it off with the meat before you add the paste, otherwise it just doesn’t taste that great), sliced Shiitake Mushrooms etc.
500g sliced Chicken (I used breast but thighs have a better flavour)/raw Prawns/thinly sliced Beef or Pork
3 Tablespoons Groundnut Oil
1 Tablespoon Nam Pla
Juice and Zest from 1 Lime
Half a Bunch of Chopped Coriander
Seasoning to Taste
To make the paste, throw all the ingredients into a spice grinder and whizz until fragrant and smooth. You may need to add a little more lime juice to get everything to cohere. Alternatively, you could probably do this in a blender or, the worst possible scenario, in a pestle and mortar.
To make the curry, heat the oil in a wok or shallow frying pan. Fry off the meat (i.e. chicken, beef, pork or aubergine if going for the vegetarian option) until browned on all sides. Remove to a plate.
Turn the heat down to medium and add a little more oil if the pan seems dry. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of your freshly made (or jarred) Thai Green Curry sauce. It will sizzle but then start to simmer. After a couple of minutes it will smell deliciously fresh and fragrant.
Pour over the coconut milk and stock or coconut/peanut butter mixture and bring to a brisk simmer. Leave to mingle for 5-10 minutes then add the Nam Pla, Lime Juice and Zest, browned Meat, Vegetables and half the chopped Coriander. Leave to simmer for another 5 minutes.
Taste for seasoning. I always need to add a little salt and pepper but you may not need to.
If you are using prawns or seafood add them now and simmer for a couple minutes more.
To serve, ladle into deep bowls and sprinkle with the remaining chopped Coriander.
You can also make this into a more substantial meal by adding a little cornflour dissolved in cold water to thicken it and serving with Jasmine Rice.

Pot Stickers

Dim Sum are not particularly popular over here in the UK yet. I mean, it took us more than 40 years to catch onto sushi and I still can’t imagine anyone over the age of 70 relishing a delicious Salmon Skin Roll. My own grandfathers’ face, contorted into a mask of disgust at the thought of cold rice AND raw fish, will be forever etched into my mind when I first introduced him to the joys of supermarket sushi (and, as our dear old Coney would say, leave ‘em be).
Dim Sum is another matter altogether though. There is no searingly hot chilli to contend with, no raw fish to dice with and the chopsticks are entirely optional. Add all these winning factors to the irrefutable fact that they taste mighty fine and you’re onto a winner.
Or so you would think.
A local Dim Sum restaurant has opened up near us. Keen to visit, we checked out their website, only to be greeted with incredibly expensive delicacies that will surely mean that the death knell of this local restaurant is looming with great rapidity.
Why so expensive though? Sure, Dim Sum are fiddly, they are delicate and dainty. But the ingredients are dirt cheap. Pork Mince? Prawns, and seasonings. We are not talking about lobster and caviar folks, just honest, decent ingredients served in whimsical (to a Brit) steamers. Alas, in this instance, the name Dim Sum (roughly translated: Order to your Hearts’ Content) is – as usual - betrayed by British commercialism and greed.
But, there is hope for those of us who are not fortunate to live near a Dim Sum restaurant that offers great value as well as great food: make your own!
Don’t be shocked, it’s easy to wrap things in, er, wrappers. You’ve made egg rolls, right? Used Filo pastry? Wrapped a Band-Aid around your bleeding finger, using your non-dominant hand? Dim Sum are, therefore, a piece of metaphorical cake.
And, if you’re scared of wrappers, then take heart. Not all Dim Sum is fiddly. Chicken Feet, Spare Ribs, Congee Rice all take the form of Dim Sum. And for the sweet-toothed among you, there are the delicious dumplings, tarts and puddings, made with Red Bean Paste, Mango, Tapioca and, curiously, very little chocolate at all.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can organise a Dim Sum feast for friends and get most of the prep work completed the day before.
As for us, sitting here all smug proselytising about the joys of Dim Sum, we can confirm that yes, we have made some and yes, they were entirely successful, if not aesthetically pleasing (although for a first attempt, still quite cute really): Savoury Dumplins’, known in China as Jiaozi and in Japan as Gyoza.
The dumplings, little savoury morsels of ground pork, prawn, water chestnuts, cabbage, ginger etc, encased in Wonton Wrappers can be poached, steamed or shallow fried (Pot Stickers), served with a dipping sauce or dropped into broth. I favour the Pot Sticker method. It gives a delicious triple texture: the tender upper half of the dumpling which is steamed, the bronzed derriere and the innards, both soft and crisp, depending on the filling. Pot Stickers are traditionally served at special occasions and when turned out, they certainly look stunning when turned out onto a serving platter.

And, despite them looking complex, they are simple to prepare (Paul even made his own Wonton Wrapper dough, which was incredibly quick, simple and easy to work with) and it would be fun to get your guests in the kitchen, forming the little dumplings and arranging them in the frying pan, then digging in with chopsticks around the cooker.
We served our Pot Stickers with some takeaway noodles and rice, but they make a filling treat by themselves.
To make your own Dim Sum Delight, here's how:
SHRIMP AND PORK POT STICKERS (from Gourmet Magazine Feb 2006)
(or you can use ready made Wonton Wrappers which are available on your local Asian supermarket or deli in the chiller)
1.5 Cups Plain Flour
1/2 Cup Lukewarm Water
3 or 4 Water Chestnuts (I used canned), chopped into small dice
1/2Lb Prawns, chopped
1/4Lb Ground Pork
3/4 Cup Chopped Spring Onion (about 4-5)
1.5 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
2 Teaspoons Minced Ginger
1 Teaspoon Sesame Oil
To make the dough, stir together the flour and water in a bowl until roughly combined. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and kneed until a smooth dough is formed. Add a little more flour if the dough is too sticky.
Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 10 minutes to an hour.
Whilst waiting for the dough to chill, you can mix the filling together by throwing all the ingredients into a large bowl and mixing well. The filling will be sticky. Refrigerate until ready to use.
To make the wrappers, roll out the dough until very thin, the thickness of a sheet of kitchen roll, cut into 3.5" rounds using a smooth biscuit cutter, lightly dusting them to avoid them sticking together. You should get 24 rounds out, reusing scraps.
To form the dumplings, hold a round wrapper in the palm of your slightly cupped hand and, using a measuring tablespoon (rather than a serving tablespoon), scoop some mixture onto the middle of the wrapper. Wet one half of the edge with some water and bring the edges up to the middle and crimp with your finger tips until completely sealed. We did this part wrong and folded them in half, like little Empanadas. If you find this easier, you will still get an impressive looking turnout in the end.
Once you have made the 24 dumplings, heat 1 tablespoon of peanut oil in a 10" frying pan over medium high heat.
To arrange the dumplings, place 7 in the middle of the pan in a simple Chrysanthemum shape, then arrange the remaining dumplings around the outside. You may have to jiggle them around a little to fit, but they will go.
Cook over relatively high heat for 3-5 minutes (depending on how hot your hotplate gets) until the bottoms are browned. We actually needed longer than this because our oven is very temperamental.
Once evenly and deliciously browned, pour over 1/2 cup warm water. It will sizzle a little. Tilt the pan to ensure that the water is evenly distributed, cover and steam for about 10 minutes.
To turn out, carefully get a large plate with no tilting edges, hold over the frying pan and flip over quickly but carefully.
Serve with some dipping sauce, Sweet Chilli is always popular but I mix up my own with a little Soy, a little Nam Pla (Fish Sauce), some Lime Juice, a sliced red chilli, minced garlic and ginger and some sugar to taste. Leave for at least an hour for the flavours to mingle. This sauce keeps really well in the fridge too.

A Life-Altering Soup

I know, I’m already talking about soup again. I have written more posts extolling the joys of soup than any other dish. I never tire of them: delicate Miso-style broths, bolshy spicy meals-in-a-bowl, more stew than soup, or for ladies who lunch – purees of vegetables, extracting the sheer essence of asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, or broccoli, to be sipped daintily.
Because Paul and I are on a strict (read: no chocolate, biscuits, cake, crisps or butter) but sensible diet, soups often appear on our evening dinner table (or rather, tray on lap, in front of telly): we have ‘cleansed’ our bodies with Miso Soups, made more substantial with sprinklings of spring onion, glass noodles, little prawn dumplings, beansprouts, tofu and Wakami (dried seaweed, packed with nutrients). I have also added highly nontraditional green beans, chopped in bite size pieces, frozen broad beans and shredded greens and red chillis. Herbs always make an aromatic brew, and coriander and mint are particularly alluring. Miso Soup can be surprisingly filling and feels incredibly nourishing. For flavour, I recommend the Miso Paste which comes in a jar in your local Health Store, but the instant sachets are OK if you’re pressed for time. Hidden at the bottom of your mug, within the murky depths, are tiny shavings of Bonito (dried tuna) and vivid green flecks of Wakami. I am constantly amazed at how the minuscule pieces of shrivelled seaweed swell and flourish when you pour hot water on them.
For a slightly more substantial but no less nourishing soup, I made my own variation of a Green Chilli recipe, taken from Gourmet Magazine (February 2007).
I am thrilled to discover that there are now several online suppliers of Mexican food in the UK. One company, Lupe Pintos, sell a vast array of the La Preferida range (which I often bring back with me in my suitcase after a trip to see the in-laws). Unfortunately this stuff doesn’t come cheap, but it’s worth experimenting with if you’re feeling particularly flush. The canned Chipotles in Adobe Sauce give real pep to a chilli that’s just missing something. Paul is a huge fan of the Refried Chipotle Beans and the Mexican Breadcrumbs make awesome fish fingers (cut a small loin of cod into 3” x 1” pieces, dip into seasoned flour, beaten egg then the breadcrumbs, fry for 2-3 minutes until golden brown and deliciously most. Serve in white bread with lettuce and mayo).
But, aside from the hottest potato chips I have ever tasted (Death Rain Habenero Chips – seductively hot), the product I was most interested in, and finally got around to using last night, was the White Hominy.
On first impressions, Hominy looks as though someone dropped their popcorn into 7-Up, literally soggy popcorn. Not surprising as it is actually dried corn kernels, soaked in an alkaline mixture (originally wood ash) until the husks are removed. The resulting nude kernel is then ready for use. This process goes by the catchy name of Nixtamalization, but despite the retro-trendy moniker, Hominy has been prepared in this manner since 1200BC. Curiously, this basic chemical process renders the kernel far more nutritious (and easier to digest) than nature originally intended.
It has a distinctive smell that reminded me of the Mexican food aisle in American supermarkets, but when used in a spicy soup or stew, it lightens a dish with its not-unpleasantly bland flavour and boiled potato texture.
It was, then, with great pleasure that I could finally bust open this enormous tin of White Hominy for use in the aforementioned Green Chilli Soup.
The original recipe uses ground pork but I didn’t have any ground pork and I felt that pork loin wouldn’t have the necessary flavour (much too lean) for the soup. This, in addition to the long cooking time it would take to tenderise the meat to raggedy standards I usually employ, meant that I decided to use a chicken breast instead. It’s the healthy option.
What’s so special about this recipe, you’re wondering. How about, a soup so fragrant with chilli and coriander and cumin that you can feel it behind your eyes. Every spoonful makes you smile and feel peaceful whilst simultaneously exciting your taste buds. Don’t panic: I’m not slipping over to the hippy darkside, I just found the soup wondrous.
So, enough wittering, you’re all thinking. We just want the recipe. OK. But, one last piece of advice that I would urge you to take: the garnishes of the toasted pumpkin seeds and sprinkled feta cheese are not optional. The lactic bite of the cheese (you could use goats cheese too) and the crunch of the seeds are as intrinsic to the dish as the fresh coriander (cilantro), chillis or cumin.
Oh, if you can’t find Hominy, I’m not sure what else to suggest. Canned Sweetcorn would be too sweet and overpowering, chick peas which look similar but are too firm and nutty. Just order a can of Hominy from either of these two online emporiums (if you’re in the UK, that is), Lupe Pintos or MexGrocer.co.uk.

GREEN CHILLI WITH CHICKEN AND HOMINY (adapted from a recipe from Gourmet Feb 07)
1 Onion, peeled and cut into quarters
1-4 Jalapeno Chillis (I used the 3” chillis you can get in the supermarket in the UK, but I wussed out and de-seeded it. My heat tolerances are on go-slow at the moment), topped and cut into large chunks
2 Cloves Garlic, peeled and squashed with the back of a knife
1 ¾ Cups Chicken Stock (fresh is best, but I used a stock cube)
1 Teaspoon Cumin (I had run out of cumin powder so I toasted some seeds and ground my own in a pestle and mortar – the smell was heady and intoxicating, everyone should try it)
½ Teaspoon Salt (or to taste)
400g Hominy, drained and rinsed
1-2 Chicken Breasts, skin on or off
Half a bunch of Coriander (cilantro) or a couple of tablespoons, chopped
3 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
Feta Cheese for Crumbling
Toasted Pumpkin Seeds for Sprinkling
Throw the quartered onion, chopped chilli, squashed garlic and quarter cup of the chicken stock into a food processor or blender and puree until smooth.
In a frying pan, heat one tablespoon of oil and fry off the chicken breasts until brown on both sides, this should take about 3-4 minutes. Remove to a plate.
Add the remaining oil, heat over medium high heat and stir in the onion/chilli/garlic puree mush. It will sizzle frantically for a few seconds.
Cook over a relatively high heat until the liquid has evaporated, stirring frequently, about 5-10 minutes.
Add the rest of the stock, the chicken, the cumin, salt and hominy, stir well and leave to simmer gently for about 5 more minutes or until the chicken is cooked.
Remove the chicken from the soup and shred, using two forks. Return to the soup, stir once more and serve in large deep bowls, sprinkled generously with the feta cheese and toasted pumpkin seeds.

p.s. Thanks to everyone for their kind messages (and special thanks for Ulrike for her lovely postcards from Europe!) - I've missed everyone and I feel buoyed and refreshed to be back and I can't wait to catch up on everyone's blogs!