In which a Christmas gift has conditions attached *

We are a horribly traditional couple, and no role model at all for our grandchildren.  If it’s jobs round the house that need doing, Malcolm’s your man.  He’s a very handy plumber, and spending the morning fiddling with the electrics presents him with no problems at all.  He’s good at what he does. I’m not even any use as the gopher.  I’ll bring him the wrong sort of screwdriver, and am apt to confuse hammers and mallets.

Cooking however is a different story.  I’ll open the fridge and plan a meal round whatever catches my eye or needs using up.  I read recipe books for fun, but rarely use them whilst actually cooking.  Spending time in the kitchen is relaxing for me.  Malcolm requires a detailed recipe, and if he finds we’re out of some minor ingredient, the planned-for dish is hastily abandoned.  In advance of actually cooking, he carefully lines up, measures and weighs all he needs, just like Delia Smith used to do.

So this Christmas, I’ve given him a present designed to remove cooking-related stress.  Here it is: a whole book of dishes needing only five ingredients, and top of the best-seller lists as well.

Jamie Oliver’s latest book.

Very meanly though, I’ve insisted that in return for the gift, he has to plan and cook a dish from it once a week.

He says he’s up for the challenge. Happily, he hasn’t given me a D-I-Y book in return. No home deserves my botched attempts at repair and maintenance. Instead, he’s given me this: much more my cup of tea.


  • Malcolm says I ought to call this post ‘The Poisoned Chalice’.  I think that’s a bit harsh.

Dozens of plums, hundreds of plums ….

This is Gillian’s orchard. Her apples were more photogenic than her plum trees. Thanks for all this fruit, Gillian!

We don’t seem to eat jam any more.  And gifts of English style chutneys, full of summer and autumn fruits and piquant with the inevitable malt vinegar sit reproachfully at the back of the food cupboard, uneaten and unloved.

There are only so many plum frangipane tarts you can eat, delicious as they are (thanks, Mrs. Portly!) Or plum cakes.

What to do with all these plums we’ve picked?  Open freeze some for winter cakes and puddings?  There, that’s sorted a kilo out.  Now what?

Gathering greengages.

Well, perhaps we could make some chutney after all.  Fired up with chillies and warming spices, they could make a decent addition to a simple winter supper.  Finding a recipe that fits our bill is a task Google was made for.  And here it is, courtesy of a blog new to me that I’ll be following with interest from now on, The Cottage Smallholder.

Hot spiced plum chutney
Author: Fiona Nevile
Prep time: 30 mins
Cook time: 3 hours
Total time: 3 hours 30 mins
  • 1.45 kilos approx of sweet plums
  • 500 ml of white wine vinegar (don’t use malt or white vinegar)
  • 4 chunky cloves of garlic sliced fine
  • 175g of dried apricots chopped
  • 600g of white granulated sugar
  • I lemon cut lengthwise into 8 slices and sliced very fine (ours weighed 100g)
  • 1 large pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon of coriander powder
  • 7 red birds eye chillis sliced fine, include the seeds
  • 1 tsp of salt
  • 1 tsp of allspice powder
  • 1 tsp cinnamon powder
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp of balsamic vinegar
  • 5 juniper berries
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp of dried chillies, chopped fine with seeds
  1. The night before you want to make the chutney, stone the plums and put them in a large heavy bottomed saucepan/preserving pan and add the vinegar. Bring to the boil, cover and leave to cool until the next day.
  2.  Add all the ingredients apart from the sugar and the dried chillies.
  3. Bring slowly to simmering point and add the sugar. Stir constantly until you are certain that the sugar has dissolved.
  4. Bring the chutney back to a good simmer and, after an hour or so, add the dried chillis to taste.
  5. Stir every few minutes to stop the bottom burning (this is a labour of love after all).
  6. Eventually depending on the strength of your simmer, the chutney will start to thicken (more like very thick soup than chutney), stirring every 10-15 minutes or so. Test for thickness by putting a spoonful in the fridge for half an hour and take the saucepan off the stove during the test.
  7. When you have a consistency that you like, very gently reheat the chutney and when it reaches simmering point pour into warm sterilised jars and seal with plastic lined metal lids. Leave for a month to mellow.
  8. N.B. Don’t use cellophane jam pot covers as the vinegar will evaporate and you will be left with relics from a Pharaoh’s tomb after a few months.

We haven’t had the chance to taste the fully matured version.  But this seems to be the business.  Hot, fiery, with complex flavours that aren’t overwhelmed by vinegar.

Chutney bubbling away.

And if you still want another chutney, good old Saint Nigel delivers another spicy treat in his cooking bible, ‘Tender’

Nigel Slater’s hot and sweet plum chutney
. 750g of plums (about 1 1/2 pounds)
. 350g of onions (about 3/4 pound)
. 125g of raisins (about 3/4 cup)
. 250g of light muscovado sugar (1 1/4 cups)
. 1/2 tsp of crushed dried chillies
. 2 tsp yellow mustard seeds
. 150ml of apple cider vinegar (5 1/2 fluid ounces)
. 150ml of malt vinegar (5 1/2 fluid ounces)
. a cinnamon stick broken in two

Halve the plums, discarding the stones. Peel and roughly chop the onions. Put the fruit and the onions into a large heavy bottomed saucepan. Add the remaining ingredients. Bring the mixture to the boil, then reduce the heat to low. Simmer on low heat, stirring occasionally, for about an hour. (DO not forget to stir it occasionally as it may catch if you don’t and you don’t want that to happen!) Pour into hot and sterilized jam jars. Seal. Allow it to mature for at least a couple of weeks.

Now then.  All you have to do is source your plums …. and get cooking.

The backdrop to all our picking activity. Not bad, eh?

Cauliflower please.

25011-cauliflower-picture-materialThose cauliflowers with their crisp, bright creamy curds look so enticing on the market stall at this time of year.  They beg to be bought and transformed into something both appetising and full of goodness.

So often they disappoint .  That bright white face displayed among all the cheery autumn colours of carrots and pumpkins, and the deep forest green of spinach and cabbage turns a sullen shade of oatmeal the second it’s introduced to a pan of boiling water.  Leave it there a moment too long and it’s watery, tasteless and almost slimy.

But there are recipes in which it shines. On a miserable winter’s day after a few hours out in the cold, you can’t beat a plateful of good old cauliflower cheese made with lots of decent sharp-flavoured cheddar. You can get away with Cantal Entre Deux, but not the ready-grated Emmenthal that seems to be the default cooking cheese round here.

My next favourite is Rose Elliot‘s cashew nut korma – very mild indeed as far as curries go, but tasty and more-ish.  I’ll adapt the vegetables to what I have in the house, but I’m always sure to include cauliflower.  It’s a recipe I try to make a day ahead, because that way, the ingredients sit together in the pan and get very well acquainted overnight.  By the time we eat them, they’ve become good and harmonious friends.  And I get to use two of the chillies I’ve been carefully growing all summer.

There’s a bit of a theme emerging here: it’s all about comfort food.  Perhaps because this week’s been unremittingly horrible.  It’s rained and rained, the wind has blown, and then it’s rained some more.  A fresh crunchy salad involving fine slices of cauliflower, enlivened by finely chopped herbs and a bright dressing simply wouldn’t hit the spot.  Here’s the last suggestion,  from Nigel Slater’s Tender, Volume one.

A mildly spiced supper of cauliflower and potatoes

That potato and cauliflower dish bubbling away
That potato and cauliflower dish bubbling away

Serves 4


3 large onions
Rapeseed oil
4 cloves garlic
Ginger: a thumb-sized lump
1 tbsp. ground coriander-a tablespoon
2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp.cayenne
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
3 tomatoes (or 1/2 tin)
600 ml. water
3 medium potatoes
a large cauliflower
Handful unroasted cashew nuts
6 green cardamom pods
1 tbsp. garam masala-a tablespoon
150- 200 ml. crème fraîche
coriander-a small bunch

  • Peel the onions, chop one of them roughly, then let it soften with a tablespoon or two of oil in a deep pan over a moderate heat.
  • Halve and thinly slice the others and set aside. peel the garlic cloves, slice them thinly then stir into the softening onion. Continue cooking, without browning either the onion or the garlic.
  • Grate the ginger.  These days I freeze ginger when I buy it, and grate from frozen. It’s so easy to deal with this way. Add to the onion and garlic.
  • Stir the ground coriander, cumin, cayenne and turmeric into the onion. Let them fry for a minute or two, then roughly chop the tomatoes and add them to the pan.
  • Add the water and bring to the boil.
  • Season with salt and a generous grind of black pepper.
  • Cut the potatoes into large pieces (as if for boiling) and add them to the pan. lower the heat and leave to simmer for fifteen minutes before breaking the cauliflower into florets and adding to the sauce.
  • Quickly toast the cashew nuts in a small non-stick frying pan until golden, tip them into the pot, cover with a lid and continue to simmer for fifteen to twenty minutes.
  • Meanwhile, fry the reserved onions in a little oil in a shallow pan till deep, nutty gold.
  • Whilst they are cooking, crack the cardamom pods, scrape out the seeds, crush lightly and add to the onions.
  • Continue cooking for five minutes or so, then, when all is gold and fragrant, remove and place on kitchen paper.
  • When the cauliflower and potatoes are tender to the point of a knife, stir in the garam masala (the spices in it are already roasted, so it needs very little cooking) and the crème fraîche. Simmer for a minute, then serve topped with the reserved onions and the roughly chopped or torn coriander leaves.

Cookery blogs I like

I’ve got a large collection of recipe books.  Despite regular and judicious weeding, the shelves get heavier with every passing year.  You know me well enough to realise that Nigel Slater gets a shelf all to himself, which he shares with my latest new cooking best-friend, Diana Henry.

In among are certain stand-alone favourites: Denis Cotter’s ‘Paradiso seasons’ – stylish vegetarian recipes from an Irish restaurateur: Pushpesh Pant’s encyclopaedic ‘India cookbook‘: a reliable guide to quick and easy suppers from Sandeep Chatterjee’s ‘Indian Vegetarian Cookery’: and ‘Persia in Peckham’ by Sally Butcher, a great book to browse through and read, as well as to cook from.

Yet for all that, I find myself increasingly visiting the internet when hunting for new ideas.  Any page that is immediately greyed-out by a superimposed advert is banished without further ado.  So is any recipe that comes expressed in the cups so beloved of Americans and Australians (A tablespoon of butter?  Oh, please no.)

I’m likely to find what I want among the pages of my favourite food bloggers.  And here they are, in no particular order. What they can all do is write, and communicate their pleasure in the dishes they make with me, their reader.  Perhaps you’ll come to enjoy them too.

rachel eats

rachel eats

Once upon a time, just after I’d left school, I worked in Italy, in Florence.  As an au pair living en famille, I had no need to cook, but I remember those intriguing food shops; corn-yellow chickens, feathered heads intact, hanging in long lines from hooks above the counter; vast wheels of parmesan, fragrant hard flakes dusting the counter from the last-cut slice; the salumeria, with dusky cured meats and salamis suspended from the ceiling, and piled into baskets.  I remember thick soups of fagioli ad’oglio and  the excitement of first eating such simple dishes as soft cushions of mozzarella dressed with tomatoes, olive oil and pepper.  Mainstream now, but so exciting back in the 60’s.  Rachel’s blog puts me back in touch with those days.

Rachel is a young English woman living with her small son Luca in the Testaccio district of Rome.  I think perhaps she chooses to lives there, in Testaccio, as much as anything  because of its busy daily market, with its stalls of just-picked vegetables and fruits, its fresh local cheeses and cured meats all sold by the people who’ve grown and produced these goods.  Back home, she transforms what she’s just bought into simple tasty and achievable recipes which I always want to cook the second I’ve read about them. If ‘slow food’ is the motto you live by, Rachel’s your woman, because she’ll always point out that so many of the dishes she enjoys require time to develop a range of complex flavours, though otherwise not too much effort.  Here’s the last dish of hers we enjoyed.

The Ordinary Cook…..

the ordinary cook

I think that Kath is the less-than-ordinary cook I aspire to be.  Like me, she learnt from her mother – my earliest cooking memories are of helping to chop up candied lemon and orange peel for the Christmas cake, aged about 4.  Like me, her cooking school was family life.  Like me, she enjoys it when her children cook with her.  Unlike me, she seems to be able to get away with cooking a lot of cakes and puddings: I like to make them, but taking 2 slices out of a whole cake before it goes stale isn’t a great idea.  Kath is always keen to try things she’s never embarked on before, such as making her own butter.  Any woman who provides a recipe for damson ice cream gets my vote.  She’ll tweak a standard favourite and make it into something new: gooseberry and elderflower cheesecake comes to mind.  There’s a lot of baking, but also plenty of ideas for inexpensive tasty main meals such as chorizo, lentil and bean stew. Good stuff.

Cook eat live vegetarian

cook eat live vegetarian

Vegetarianism is by no means mainstream here in France.  It’s seen as cranky, even.  Outside the big cities, you’ll struggle to find a restaurant offering meat and fish-free main dishes (so take a bow, le Rendez-vous at Léran, for your daily vegetarian choice).  On a domestic level, the vegetarian diet here tends to be … well …. brown.  ’70’s retro, really.  Lentils and chick peas, tasty items in themselves, tend to be offered without the revitalising additions of brightly coloured vegetables or zingy spices.  How I long to thrust  Natalie Ward’s blog in front of French vegetarian cooks.  Here is what she says on her ‘About…’ page:

 ‘This blog is to share our enthusiasm for fantastic food with a world flavour. Using seasonal produce, grown locally where possible, we aim to excite with global vegetarian cuisine . Our inspiration comes from what fruit & vegetables we see growing while walking the dog in the “campo” in the morning  and we hope to share some of the beauty of Andalucia in the process.’

She succeeds alright.  She favours fresh, bright yet often quite complex flavours that excite the palate.  Almost every recipe of hers that I have cooked has become part of my repertoire.  It’s the sort of food I can make for non-vegetarians, who will have cleared the plate and asked for more even before they’ve realised that there’s not a mouthful of meat on offer.

I offer this recipe to those of you who despair over what to do with yet another mound of courgettes from the kitchen garden.

Marmaduke Scarlet.

I love London.  Why wouldn’t I ?  Visiting gives me the chance to stay with my son and daughter-in-law.  It gives me chances to expose myself to ‘culture’ with big and small ‘c’s’ of all kinds.  And I love shopping there.  No not THAT kind of shopping. Food shopping.

Rachel Kelly?  Or Marmaduke Scarlet?
Rachel Kelly? Or Marmaduke Scarlet?

I love to nosey round Lewisham, maybe beginning with a rich dark espresso at the noisy and friendly Italian delicatessen, crowded with members of the  local Italian community; going on to the Turkish shop; the Polish and Latvian stores; the Caribbean stalls on the market.  Then there are Indian stores, various kinds of African ……

Rachel Kelly, aka Marmaduke Scarlet enjoys London too.  She lives there. Having a  metropolitan address doesn’t stop Rachel from eating seasonally, from locally sourced ingredients, including the wild leeks from her own garden.  She celebrates the cultural diversity of London, using ingredients which we poor provincials sometimes struggle to find.  She asks herself why some things work best one way rather than another, and wonders how to be creative with those leftovers.   She tells a good story.  She loves Nigel Slater.  She makes me feel hungry as I read her latest post.  Really, what’s not to like?  You could try this one, maybe.

David Lebovitz

David LebovitzI hardly seem to need to recommend this.  I note that half the blogs I read already have him on their blog roll.  A professional American cook and baker living in Paris, he writes wittily about his life in the city and as he travels Europe and the world.  I wouldn’t think of visiting Paris now without checking first on the various food shops, bars and restaurants he recommends, and his recipes are worth a go too.  Those Whole Lemon Bars: once tasted, never forgotten.

Cherries gone wrong.

It was my twin grandsons’ birthdays yesterday.  One way for us to celebrate it here is to gather in the very last of the cherry harvest.  In this topsy-turvy year, 14th June marked our first, not our last chance for us to harvest this year’s crop, helping friends in a village just down the road.

Oh, they looked good, those cherries!  The tree was weighed down with luscious ruby fruits.  Max got out a ladder for us to reach the ones way up towards the top, but even before we got to work, we could see that all was not as it seemed.  Many cherries – most cherries – were turning brown and nasty or had already grow a furry coat, even before they’d fully ripened.  As we harvested, we discarded more than we dropped into our buckets.  After we’d done all we could, we only had two small buckets’ worth.

Then we went through our haul again: quality control.  Our two buckets-worth became one.  Christine complained that she couldn’t foresee getting more than a single clafoutis out of this lot.  Normally she makes cherry jam, cherry liqueur, bottled cherries, cherry clafoutis and cherry pies till she’s sick of the sight of them.  And what was worse, those cherries didn’t even taste of much.  Engorged with water, the flavour was diluted and thin somehow.

They gave the lot to us.

This morning, I got our cherries out of the fridge to pick them over before tackling that clafoutis.  Overnight, almost half of them had gone bad.  Saint Nigel, my unfailing kitchen guide, suggested an improvement on the traditional clafoutis recipe, and I followed it.  The recipe was not a success.  The batter was solid and heavy, and complemented by wishy-washy flavourless cherries, it was not a pudding to write home about.

By the way, do you know the French for ‘it’s nothing to write home about‘?  It’s ‘Il ne casse pas trois pattes à un canard‘.  It doesn’t break the three feet of a duck.  In other words, it’s nothing extraordinary, as a three-legged duck would certainly be.

Coffee and walnut cake – the failure

I knew it would end in tears. I should have listened to Nigel.

Malcolm’s favourite cake in all the world is coffee and walnut cake. So why not indulge him for his birthday? I made one a while back, and it was just as it should have been – rich and indulgent, with a moist crumb, but not too sickly sweet. How could I have forgotten that it was Nigel who delivered, as he invariably does, the Tips That Matter? I turned to another book, a BBC book for heaven’s sake, which is normally pretty reliable. My instincts told me it was wrong. The size of tin relative to the mixture, the heat of the oven – everything. But I decided to go for it in every particular: you don’t argue with the Beeb.

And of course I shouldn’t have done. The two layers were too thin to rise into a satisying mound of comforting coffee-infused sponge, the quantity of icing advised would have filled and decorated enough cakes to fill the WI stall at the farmer’s market. I was unimpressed. Malcolm’s being too polite to say so, but he did venture to point out that Nigel is King in this house, and his recipes should always be first port of call.

Here’s his recipe. I’ve just this minute compared it with the one I made. And would you believe, the two are all but identical?  Extraordinary.  Jut reading a recipe by Nigel seems to make it succeed.

It’s rare for me to follow recipes to the letter.  Like Nigel Slater, I tend to adapt, substitute, tinker.  So what I’ve learnt from this is that instincts are there to be heeded.  If a recipe seems wrong, it probably is.  For you, anyway.  On that particular day, at least.

The failed coffee cake. It can't be all that bad.  We'll eat it.
The failed coffee cake. It can’t be all that bad. We’ll eat it.

What to do with a Hallowe’en pumpkin

Hallowe’en.  Pumpkin season.  Every fruit and veg stall in the markets here will have  red kuri, ‘le butternut’, or acorn squash at the very least, and there are those dedicated to selling nothing but the rich variety of squash, pumpkin and gourd you can grow here.  Kalba gave me this butternut squash some 3 weeks ago, grown in their own garden.

The butternut makes a bid to take over the fridge

It weighs in at more than 7 kilos.  More than a stone!  We’ve been chomping our way through it, but see how much remains.  What’s worse: Malcolm has just owned up to not caring for pumpkin very much.  How could he not like it?  That comforting sweetness works so well with the saltiness of bacon, the heat and colour of chillies and oriental spices, or the fatty unctuousness of cheap cuts of meat and sausages.  Well, his loss.  Here are two of my current favourite dishes, both courtesy of Nigel Slater, from Tender, Volume 1, you may not be surprised to hear.

A recent BBC photo of Nigel Slater

Pumpkin laksa

Nigel says this is for a cold night.  Well, it is.  But it’s also a fine thing to dish up on a hot day after a gruelling few hours physical labour.  It looks complicated, but it isn’t.  Take a deep breath and read it slowly: tackle the pumpkin, then the spice paste; the rest just falls into place.


350g. pumpkin, unskinned

coriander and mint leaves to finish.

For the spice paste:

red bird’s eye chillies, 3-4

garlic- 2 cloves

ginger, a thumb sized lump

lemongrass, 2 plump stalks

coriander roots, 5 or 6 coriander leaves, a handful

sesame oil, 2 tablespoons

For the soup:

chicken or vegetable stock, 600ml

coconut milk, 400ml

nam pla (thai fish sauce), 2 tablespoons

tamari, 1-2 tablespoons, to taste

the juice of a lime

100g dried noodles, cooked as per packet and drained.

  • Peel and seed the pumpkin and cut the flesh into large chunks. Cook in a steamer or a metal colander balanced over a pan of boiling water until tender. remove from the heat.
  • For the spice paste, remove the stalks from the chillies, peel the garlic, peel and roughly chop the ginger and lemongrass. Put them all into a food processor with the coriander roots and leaves and sesame oil and blitz until you have a rough paste.
  • Get a large, deep pan hot and add the spice paste.  Fry for a minute, then stir in the stock and the coconut milk and bring to the boil.  Allow to simmer for seven to ten minutes, then stir in the nam pla, tamari, lime juice, pumpkin and the cooked and drained noodles.  Simmer briefly, add the coriander and mint noodles over the top, and serve in deep bowls.

And now for something completely different…..

Pumpkin and Apple fry-up:

either to accompany a meaty supper, or as a main dish in its own right.


a little butter

80g. fatty bacon

medium onion

650g. pumpkin flesh

400g. apples (Nigel says a desert variety.  Mine were very tart, and I thought all the better for it)

a lemon

caraway seeds, a pinch

  • Melt a slice of butter in a shallow pan, cut the bacon into short strips and let them colour lightly in the butter.
  • Peel and roughly chop the onion, add to the pan and allow to cook with the bacon until translucent but not browned.
  • Cut the pumpkin flesh into manageable pieces and add to the pan, turning from time to time till golden in patches and almost tender.
  • Core and roughly chop the apples, but don’t peel them. Stir them into the pan and leave to putter gently until they are on the verge of collapse. Avoid stirring too much, which is likely to mash the softening pumpkin.
  • Finely grate the zest from the lemon and add it to the pan with the juice, the caraway seeds and a little salt.

    But wait! Isn’t this what pumpkins are supposed to be for? My son obviously thinks so, and took this photo to prove it. Though he’s a dab hand at cooking too.

PS.  Some of you have been asking about Danger Mouse.  Well.  He’s not a mouse – too big, too cuddly.  He’s not a hamster, as we at one point thought.  Long tail.  He’s not a dormouse.  Wrong sort of tail.  And he’s not a rat.  Too small, too cuddly.  However, he’s continuing to be part of life here.  He rises at about 8.30 p.m. and organises his furniture behind the skirting boards, shoving stuff about quite noisily.  Then he knocks off and has a nap till we’ve gone to bed.  During the night he dismantles  the latest humane trap, and eats the bait.  In the small hours he may come and scurry round the floorboards under the bedroom.  Then he goes to bed until the next night.  If he ever goes, I think I shall miss him.