Friday, January 05, 2007

Petra not only cooks, she is now making herself fat..

New year, new beginnings - since I took up running 3 and a half years ago, my weight has stayed very constant and after losing masses of weight through Weight Watchers I have not had to do much about it since. This Christmas that has changed though. Whether it was the fact that there was stress in my life (apart from Christmas stress) or that my running has not been particularly challenging - one way or the other I have been eating non stop and the scales are showing it.

So far, so boring - yet another person who needs to lose some poundage (about 8, to be precise - I know, I know). But now the interesting bit - how the h**k am I going to do this? The choices, as I see it, are as follows:
- moderation - the sensible plan. If I can truly moderate my food intake, that would be good and I will lose weight without too much pain. Problem is that I've upped my food intake so any reduction is going to hurt. Without a plan to stick it's going to be very tempting to still not really watch portion control (and this, my friends, is one of the areas where I fear I've fallen off the wagon).
- speaking of which - the wagon. December has been a pickled month. I just cannot resist champagne and there has been so much of it about. Unrestricted at times which is just horrible for me. So a quick way to lose weight would be go on the wagon.
- a diet of some kind. This would impose some discipline on my eating again and, after a day or two I tend to get used to it. There was an interesting diet in The Times this week endorsed by Amanda Ursell but it just seems too laborious to follow. I'm going to sound really unadventurous but the ingredients were just too far out for me - apparently now the sexy thing in food is goji berries. I'm turning into a grumpy old woman - every year it's something new - blueberries, cranberries, pomegranates - now goji berries... Too much of a faff your diet, Mands...

No - I'm going to do WeightWatchers. Don't groan! Support me. As long as you steer clear of the hideous additive filled meals and substitutes they suggest themselves it's actually quite doable. I know people complain about the points system and weighing but you get used to it very quickly AND there is a good reason behind it - you actually check how much you're putting into your mouth. Very important for me as outlined above. So - the best way to do it, i my opinion - is to do it online. No public weigh-ins for me thank you. And their website is very snazzy indeed now. So I've just registered and set myself the target of going down to 60kg which means losing 4 kilos. Doable I hope. So far this morning I've had a grapefruit and a small bowl of muesli. Still coping at the moment - am going to postpone lunch (miso soup, green salad and some crackers) a bit as my terrible time is 5pm ish so I've got to try and get to that time not too famished. Because I'm nowhere near overweight (yet) I've not got many points to eat each day so alcohol will have to be off the menu for the time being. It'll all be painfully healthy.

The challenges for me will be:
- keeping off the booze - easier now that we've drunk our way through our Christmas cellar..
- staying away from the fridge and children's meals around 5pm..
- coming up with interesting evening meals. Loads of vegetables have no points (tomatoes, salads, courgettes, etc.) so I'm going to go crazy on them. I've just taken receipt of my new posh LeCreuset TriVita steamer / pasta pan so that'll be good. Suggestions for good low-fat healthy meals are welcome - I'm going to scour the net for some blogs with ideas.. and tips are more than welcome.

I found a photograph on Saturday which was just horrendous. It was me on my honeymoon - oh lord! it was awful! I was so fat! I think I'd been kidding myself that I wasn't really fat until I had 2 kids but really, I had been creeping up the scales for my entire twenties. It shocked me and made me realise I had to stop the rot immediately. So herewith. Recipes to follow shortly!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

curried pumpkin soup

Some recipes just work the first time you cook them. You do it, it's delicious and off you go - you've got another string to your bow.. Others are a bit trickier. I've been trying to make a good Thai pumpkin soup for a while now and I've made quite a few attempts without feeling I've really hit the spot yet. I've done one from Bill's book (too flavourless) and one from the Gourmet website (too much going on) and I think, with a bit of tinkering, this is going to be the one that will do it. It's from Tamasin Day Lewis' Tamasin's Weekend Food and I cooked it yesterday for my friends Jessica and Wendy, who both loved it and wanted the recipe. As I said, I'm not entirely convinced yet but welcome suggestions from others.. I still feel it's lacking something.


1 butternut or red onion squash (about 750g.)
olive oil
75g. of creamed coconut (which Bart spices now sells in little sachets - good idea!)
1 onion
1 stalk lemongrass (although I used 2 tsp. Bart spices grated lemongrass)
1 bird's eye chili, seeded and chopped. Don’t do what I did – I dropped some seeds on the floor and the cat ate them, wow she was very unhappy.
1 thumb of grated galangal (although, again, I used Bart spices galangal. You can also substitute a knob of ginger and some lime juice).

1. Cut the squash into chunks and remove the seeds. Brush the chunks with oil and salt and pepper and roast at 200∞ for 20 – 25 minutes until done. Meanwhile, add 200ml of hot water to the creamed coconut and mix well.
2. Finely chop the onion and sauté it in the olive oil. Add the lemongrass, the chilli and the galangal or ginger. When the squash is cool enough to handle, remove the peel and add the flesh to the onion and spices in the pan.
3. Add more hot water to the coconut mixture to bring it up to about 800ml. Pour on to the vegetables and spices and simmer gently for 15 minutes. If you’ve used a lemongrass stalk, remove it now and then whiz the soup in a liquidiser until smooth. Taste it now – I found it needed a squeeze of lime, some salt and pepper and a bit more hot water. Finally, you can serve it with a swirl of crème fraiche and some chopped coriander.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Cassoulet - in all its glory!

Having written about my top cookery books of the year, the receipe I'd like to start this revitalised blog with is not out of Bill's books - it's based on one I tore out of a BBC Good Food magazine years ago. I scanned it in years ago, and have been meaning to cook it for years, but there was something so daunting about cooking Cassoulet that I've never done it. It's one of those recipes that divides French people - different regions cook it differently and include different things - and the thought of stepping on ground previously covered by authoritative, knowledgeable, opinionated and argumentative French cooks is enough to make anyone hesitate. However, it did keep nagging at me and so I decided to go for gold and cook it for a (partly) French person, my dear friend Christine and a bunch of other friendly guinea pigs. I have a track record for setting myself up like this - my first Thanksgiving supper ever was cooked for Americans, I've baked biscotti for Italians and made Christmas lunch for my mother-in-law.. I like experimenting with new recipes and so I'll often try something new out on guests. Often it works, but occasionally it really doesn't..

Anyway, full of excitement and anticipation I researched all manner of different cassoulets on the web and in my cookbooks. The opinion of most contemporary food writers, however, was that while the dish was wonderful, it was also incredibly heavy. The Silver Palate talks about how apparently in France you can find signs on doors that translate as "closed on account of cassoulet". Now I'm hardly one to shy away from a bit of fat - running does have some compensations - but I didn't want to make something that was unappetisingly greasy or heavy. So I came back to the Good Food recipe, which promised a lighter version. Instead of using confit of duck or goose, you roasted the duck legs before putting them into the casserole. The other meats used are also somewhat leaner - there are no fatty cuts of mutton or pork, nor did I boil any pork rinds. I took some liberties with the recipe - I added more beans as I love them, and I used substituted pancetta for some of the belly pork as I just didn't like the thought of eating all those globules of fat. Though in the event I couldn't have picked out either the pancetta or the belly pork, so it may not have made much difference. Finally I did add one fattening detail - the good food version simply has you put some friend breadcrumbs on top of the cassoulet before serving it - I let this brown on top of the cassoulet while I reheated it. It was lovely and a worthwhile addition. So on y va!


500 g. dried cannelini beans, soaked overnight (for readers in Lincoln, go to Sainsbury's, nowhere else has them)
1 onion, studded with a few cloves
1 bouquet garni which I made up out of a short bit of celery, 2 bay leaves and some sprigs of thyme and flatleaf parsley
4 fat garlic cloves, finely chopped
6 toulouse sausages
4 duck legs
350 g. belly pork rashers, skinned and diced
1 pack of cubetti pancetta, I think this has about 140g. in it
2 tbsp goose fat
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 large carrot,roughly chopped
2 celery sticks, roughly chopped
350 g. lamb neck fillet, chopped
350 g. boneless casserole pork, chopped
300 ml dry white wine
400 g. can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato puree
2 heaped tbsp chopped fresh flatleaf parsley
1 heaped tbsp chopped fresh thyme

For the topping
1 day old baguette
2 fat garlic cloves, halved
4 tbsp goose fat
2 heaped tbsp chopped fresh flatleaf parsley
1 heaped tbsp chopped fresh thyme

Step 1
Drain and rinse the beans, tip into a large pan and cover generously with cold water. Bring to the boil and skim off the scum, then add the studded onion, the bouquet garni, half the garlic and lots of pepper. Stir, half cover and boil for 30 minutes, then add the sausages and boil for 30 minutes more. Stir occasionally and top up with water when necessary. (Don't worry if you think the beans aren't quite done - I boiled them for 15 mins longer and I think they were a bit overcooked, so stick with the recipe).

Step 2
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 220C/Gas7/fan oven 200C. Prick the duck all over with a fork and put on a rack in a roasting tin. Roast for 30 minutes, then remove and set aside. Lower the oven to 140C/Gas 1/fan oven 120C. When the beans have been cooking for 1 hour, tip them into a sieve; discard the onion and bouquet garni. Set sausages aside.

Step 3
Put the belly pork and cubetti pancetta in a 4 litre/ 7 pint flameproof dish or casserole pan and heat gently until the fat runs, then increase the heat and fry until just crispy. Lift out the pancetta and those bits of belly pork that haven't completely melted and add the poultry fat. Heat until sizzling, then add the onion, carrot, celery and remaining garlic, scraping up the bits from the base. Fry over a gentle heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a plate with the pancetta and belly pork.

Step 4
Increase the heat and add the lamb. Stir fry until coloured on all sides, then transfer to the plate and repeat with the pork. Tip the ingredients from the plate back into the dish. Add the wine and let it bubble, scraping up the bits from the base of the dish. Add the tomatoes, tomato puree and herbs, then season with sea salt and pepper to taste.

Step 5
Add the haricot beans and 850ml water to the dish and bring to the boil. Stir, then lower the heat so the liquid is just simmering. Keep the mixture in the same dish to cook or transfer it to an earthenware dish. Remove the skin from the duck, then tuck the duck legs into the liquid. Peel off the sausage skins, slice the sausagemeat thickly on the diagonal and add to the dish.

Step 6
Cover the dish and bake for 1 hour, stirring once. Stir, then cook uncovered for a further 1 to 1 1/2 hours, stirring halfway, until the meat is really tender and the sauce thickened. Take the dish out of the oven and remove the duck legs, strip the meat from the bones (it will fall off easily) and return the meat to the dish. Stir and add a little water, if necessary.

Step 7
To make the topping:
Tear the bread into pieces and put in a food processor, Add the garlic and chop into coarse crumbs (you should have about 200g/8oz). Heat the fat in a large frying pan until sizzling, then stir fry the breadcrumbs and garlic over a moderate to high heat for 7-8 minutes until crisp and golden. Remove from the heat, toss in the herbs and stir to mix, then season well with salt and pepper.

Step 8
Give the cassoulet a good stir. The consistency should be quite thick, but not stodgy. If you prefer it slightly runnier, add a little water. Taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary, then sprinkle the topping over the surface in a thick, even layer. If you're going to go ahead and eat it now return it to the oven and bake for another 30 minutes until the topping is crunchy (if necessary, whack the grill on for 5 minutes at the end). If you want to prepare it ahead, make it up until the end of Step 6. Cool, cover and chill overnight. (The beans absorb liquid so you will need to add more water on reheating.) Before putting it in the oven with the topping on, make sure you've reheated it through (on the hob, probably) which takes a while (30 mins if you don't let it boil, which you shouldn't).


Monday, November 13, 2006

Cookery books of the year

Unbelievable - my last submission to this blog was on January 4th! Amazing how little action I've taken over the past year, blog-wise.. Guess life got in the way of blogging but still - I did plenty of cooking. So - quick update of what's been cooking in my lab this past year. New cookery books? Of course, though I've been more restrained than previously - despite my fabulous new bookshelves in my study I really am running out of space. This year I have really enjoyed using the following books:

Tamasin's Kitchen Bible by Tamasin Day Lewis. It has taken me a while but I really like Tamasin's recipes. The reason I didn't immediately warm to her is that Tamasin has that slightly annoying humourlessness that her more famous brother also has, that air of taking themselves terribly seriously, which I find quite off putting. She thinks she is quite amazing and being an instinctive Dutch protestant I can't quite handle her 'tude.. But you've got to look beyond that - she is a pretty incredible cook. This book contains most of the classics (chicken pie, christmas recipes) as well as a lot of innovative dishes (a lovely navarin of lamb, chicken with almonds and honey). Her lemon tart is definitive - do as she says, put up and shut up, and you will be rewarded with the most delicious lemon tart known to mankind.

I have also continued to cook Annie Bell's recipes from In My Kitchen. Earlier entries in my blog include her barbequed sausages, and I've now also cooked her greek beef casserole with feta, stuffed tomatoes campagnardes and her pot-au-feu, amongst other things. Her recipes are so quietly confident and they work. Sometimes the simplicity of the ingredients makes you doubt the result will be wortwhile but persevere.

But the cookery book that has amazed me most is Bill Granger's Simply Bill. I have two of his earlier books, and they were nice (particularly the photos) but the recipes never did it for me. I don't doubt they work, or were good, but somehow they didn't click. This book, however, is amazing. Never before have I cooked my way through so many recipes from one cook book. They are simple, unusual and delicious. I find myself cooking things that I wouldn't have tackled before - red curry fish and sweet potato, homemade fish fingers - and each successive succesful recipe gives me more confidence to try more. Amazing! It's hard to give highlights - I think you can just cook your way through the entire cookbook and enjoy every meal, but recurring favourites are: rice noodles with prawns and lime,, beef stroganoff, ham lasagne (and I cannot urge you strongly enough to try this - it is wonderful and so much easier than the heavy bechamel version), braised chicken with lemon and honey and the shepherd's salad with feta. (The only recipe I've tried and not found a success is the spicy butternut soup - but if you read the comments in my post about the soup I did find you'll see that Mark recommends Peter Gordon's take on it. So I'll be posting about that when I justify buying his book..)

Finally, I have just bought Bill's most recent book, Every Day. The layout is a tad irritating (structured by day, so there are breakfast, lunch and supper recipes on each day) but I'll forgive Bill so much. In fact, the tone that comes through in his books is so friendly and approachable that you forgive him the apparent perfection of his life as pictured in his book. So I'll let you know how I get on with this one.

In the meantime, happy shopping! And if you are tempted to buy any of the books, please use the link in this blog as I get a kickback from Amazon if you click through from here - don't worry, it won't make me unbearably rich..

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

new year - new beginning

I have always been a great lover of starting afresh - the new year has never filled me with dread at all. I am a great thrower-away of things - physically and mentally - and it is only recently that I'm beginning to realize that this may not always be the best way to go at things. While I would not want to lose my enthusiasm for starting projects I have been trying to use this enthusiasm to reinvigorate existing projects rather than constantly starting afresh on something new. All this by way of explaining that - yes this blog may have seemed dead for the past months but here I am - I am not abandoning it but reviving it. And how!

The recipe that follows is one given to me by a dear friend (and great cook) Isabel Sleight. I had it at her house one book club evening and wow! I love it. Chicken, butternut squash and cranberries - the ingredients are promising but I tell you the combination of these caramelising, sweet flavours offset by the tartness in the berries - it is a marriage made in heaven. Not to mention that - it is easy, it can be prepared ahead and most people I have served it to (and I have served it 3 times in the past month) adore it. A winner all round if ever there was one! I serve it with a green salad (light vinaigrette with a bit of mustard in it) and green beans (not tooo al dente with some butter and freshly grated nutmeg). For an easy pud, do Nigella's Barbados cream and stewed fruit - recipe to follow. I tell you - stick with me for an easy life!

Here goes:

For the cranberry sauce:
350g. fresh cranberries
4-6 oz demerara sugar
juice and rind of an orange
rind of a lemon
1 glass port / Madeira / marsala - sticky sweet wine, in other words.

Put all this together in a small pan, bring to the boil and then leave to simmer until it has thickened. I find that I don't put all liquid (orange juice and port) in immediately but instead wait to see if it needs loosening once the cranberries have released their pectin and it's all thickening. It is good when the sauce is nice and thick!

For the chicken:
3-6 tbs olive oil or lemon oil
8 large chicken thighs
180 g. cubed pancetta
1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cubed fairly small
1 large red onion, finely sliced
2 tsp dried majoram
300 ml read wine
1 level tbs plain flour
2 x 400g tins of plum tomatoes
1-2 loaves of ciabatta
8 tbs freshly shaved Parmesan

1. Heat oil and brown seasoned chicken pieces on both sides. Don't crowd the pan - do it two batches to make sure they don't steam. Take out the chicken and keep on the side.
2. Put some more oil in the pan and add the pancetta, onion and squash. Over a moderate heat, brown all of this gently - it is worth taking the time to ensure all these ingredients are cooked and the squash is beginning to caramelise.
3. Add the chicken to the squash mixture, add the majoram and cook it for 1 minute. Keep back 2 tbs of the wine and add the rest to the pan, letting it bubble for 5 minutes.
4. Blend the flour with the reserved wine until smooth, stir this into the pan with the tomatoes (drained, reserving their liquid) and cranberry sauce.
5. Lower the heat, half-cover with a lid and let the whole lot simmer for 30-40 minutes. If I'm preparing this ahead, I tend to only give it 30 minutes. Keep checking that there is enough liquid - add some of the tomato juice or some wine to moisten it all if you feel it needs it.
6. Preheat the oven to 220 (fan 200 degrees). Put the chicken stew in an ovenproof dish. Cut the ciabatta into very thin slices and arrange them on top of the chicken, sprinkling them with (lemon) oil, the parmesan and some black pepper.
7. Bake uncovered for 15 minutes until golden brown.

Et voila! Barbados cream to follow!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

the blueberry cake thing - by popular demand!

I have just had such a nice response to my cookery blog from my sister-in-law Sarah that I am immediately acceding to her request to post the recipe for my blueberry cake.. If this sounds like a hint - it is. Requests will be honoured if at all possible..

This is something I have made a lot of times for a number of reasons - it almost always works, it freezes and most importantly, it is delicious. I think the secret of its deliciousness is actually the icing as it's very cheesecakey. Very light and refreshing with the fruit but then the cake underneath makes sure that you know you are eating cake and not mincing about with just fruit. So without further ado - let us make cake!

Blueberry soured cream cake with cheesecake frosting

(serves 10 and can be frozen, uniced)

175 g. soft butter
175 g. golden caster sugar
3 large eggs
225 g. self-raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp vanilla extract
142 ml carton soured cream
3 x 125 punnets blueberries (or you could save money and buy a bag of frozen blueberries from Waitrose for in the cake and just buy one punnet of blueberries to go on top. If using the frozen blueberries, don't defrost them before baking - just chuck them in frozen).

Cheesecake frosting

200 g. tub philadelphia cream cheese
100 g. icing sugar

1. Preheat oven to fan oven 160, conventional oven 180 and butter and line the base of a loose based 22 cm round cake tin with non-stick baking paper (or reusable bake-o-glide which they sell ready cut at Lakeland ( and which is fantastic)).

2. Put the butter, sugar, eggs, flour, baking powder and vanilla in a bowl. Beat with a wooden spoon for 2-3 minutes or with a hand-held electric mixer for 1-2 minutes until lighter coloured and well mixed. Beat in 4 tbsp soured cream then stir in half the blueberries with a large spoon (and see note above re. blueberries).

3. Tip the mixture into the tin and spread it level. Bake the cake for 50 mins or until it is risen, is firm to the touch and springs back when lightly pressed. Cool for 10 minutes, then take out of the tin and peel off the paper or lining. Leave to finish cooling on a wire rack. To freeze, wrap it in greaseproof paper and then aluminium foil or a freezer bag and pop it in the freezer. Defrost thoroughly before continuing..

4. To make the frosting, beat the cream cheese with the icing sugar and the remaining soured cream in a bowl until smooth and creamy. Spread over the top of the coole cake and scatter with the remaining blueberries. The cake will keep in the fridge for a couple of days but tastes best at room temperature, so take it out an hour before serving.

PS - a thought - this would probably work really well with raspberries (frozen for the cake) as well? Strawberries too but they might bleed into the cake. Still worth a shot. Also - if you're using either of the above options I sometimes pander to my daughter's tendencies and add a little juice from one or two squashed and sieved pieces of fruit to make the icing naturally pink. Lovely! Also - the icing works really well on any kind of fruity / vanilla / lemony sponge.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

In pursuit of the perfect muffin - apple, rolled oats and raisins

I was casting about for ideas for a recipe for this week when my friend Christine Saxena requested my recipe for apple raisin muffins. Coffee and a freshly baked muffin is my idea of heaven but all too often you find that commercially prepared ones (even if they're sold as "freshly baked" - where in my Starbucks?) are just too much like dry fairycakes. Not the idea at all. No, to me the perfect muffin is fresh, moist and still warm and not at all cakey. Personally I like something "healthy breakfasty" in them - fruit /oats / seeds etc. I'm a real fan of American breakfasts where anything with oats or fruit in it is considered healthy and wholesome and good for you, even if it is covered in maple syrup and pecans (like lovely heavenly home-made granola) or filled with sugar (banana and honey loaf anyone?) with salty butter an optional and delectable extra. Hmmmm. I'm under no illusions about the calorific content of breakfasts like this but still, for a brief moment, you can lull yourself into the illusion that something so delicious is also good for you. And what bliss that moment is. Anyway - I digress. Muffins then. I often make them for breakfast and although this makes me sound like a nauseatingly perfect housewife it really is very little effort and the rewards (see above) are so great. This recipe is one of my favourites - I think the yoghurt and the finely grated apple distributed throughout the whole muffin make it really moist and clean-tasting. Try it!

Preheat oven to Gas Mark 5 / 190 C

In a large bowl add and combine with a fork:

175 g plain flour
115 g wholemeal plain flour
60 g rolled or quick oats (no instant oats!)
1 tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg

In a medium bowl add and combine with a wire whisk

2 large eggs, lightly beaten
120 ml milk
120 ml plain natural yoghurt
115 g melted butter
115 g dark brown sugar
85 g raisins
1 medium to large apple, peeled, cored and grated

Gradually fold wet ingredients into dry ingredients with a spatula or wooden spoon. Do NOT overmix - just do it gently until it's just combined. Spoon the batter into muffin tins lined with paper liners, fill to the top of each cup. If you like you can sprinkle a bit of brown sugar on top of each muffin (I do..). Bake for 18-24 minutes or until the tops spring back when gently touched. Do NOT overbake. Allow to stand for one to two minutes in their tin and then transfer them to a wire rack to cool down.

Bon Appetit!