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The time we all look forward to, when we say ‘goodbye’ to winter stews and ‘hello’ to delicious grilled meats, fish and vegetables on the barbie. The addictive aroma of a well-cooked barbecue can be enjoyed from the comfort of your own garden, or from several gardens away! There is just something about it that is so evocative.
Why is it that men seem to think that the barbecue is their domain, yet they will never set foot in the kitchen, without a satnav to find it? Not so the case of my husband, who seems to have an allergic reaction to all things culinaire, even a piece of toast seems beyond his remit.
For me, with a lifetime as a chef, there are many mistakes to be made when barbecue season is just around the corner. Probably the worst is burnt or dried-up food that does not resemble what it was when it started life. Here is how to get ready for the season, some tips on cooking a great barbecue and some of the worst mistakes to be made:
Charcoal or Gas?
Whether you have a charcoal or a gas barbecue, there are some basic principles to follow. For me, it’s charcoal all the way if you have time and patience, but gas if you want to feed a lot of people in a shorter space of time. But where is the flavour in gas – at least with charcoal you can taste and smell it to get appetites on the go.
It does not matter how much you spend on a gas barbecue, there is no price for flavour. You can make food so much more interesting by using wood chips flavoured with almost anything these days – hickory, rosemary, maple, cherry, oak and beech are tasty versions of wood chips, simple sprinkled over your coals on a charcoal barbecue. A tip here is not to buy a huge bag of only one flavour – go for the multi-packs, smaller in size, so you do not waste too much if you do not like the aroma or the flavour.
I know there are practicalities for using a gas barbecue, but you really don’t get the same depth of ‘smokiness’ that you would with charcoal. You may get the smell, briefly, but you will not get the flavour.
Top Tips for Charcoal Lovers
Remember what the point of having a barbecue is – it’s not just good food, but a whole social occasion, so don’t ‘bite off more than you can chew’! Keep it simple but tasty, a choice of two meats, fish or seafood, some veggies – easy peasy.
Do not forget that tasty, toasted buns off the barbecue are much more relished than a cold bun. You can also toast some oval slices of baguette, coated lightly in olive oil (and garlic!) to offer your guests whilst they are waiting. A salsa topping so they can scoop it on is a great starter, known as a ‘bruschetta’..Flatbreads are another good option.
Some more do’s and don’ts…
These are just some tips to help you on your way to great barbecues this season, and no disasters! Enjoy every minute of your summer.
On 13th May, the world will celebrate International Hummus Day. Whilst hummus is purported to have been ‘invented’ in the 13th Century by the Egyptians, there has been somewhat of a war between Lebanon, Israel (and any other countries where chickpeas are grown in abundance!), to the extent that a fierce competition erupted for the biggest plate of hummus ever made! It appears though, that Lebanon have edged into the lead! A plate of hummus weighing over 4,500lbs was the winning result. That is one helluva lot of hummus. For the sake of ease, let us just call its origination ‘Levantine’, which means originating from the Eastern Mediterranean or the Middle East.
Hummus, as most people probably know, is made from chickpeas, olive oil, tahini, lemon juice and garlic, and each family have their own way of creating what appears to be such a simple dip. Whilst some think of it as an acquired taste, or that it is bland or uninteresting, you may be interested to know that right here, right now, over 50 percent of Europeans will have a tub in their fridge!
Hummus has not stayed as it was since the 13th Century, far from it. You can now get roasted vegetable, blueberry, carrot and caraway, pumpkin, beetroot – shall I go on? It seems to me that you can pick anything, cook it (where necessary) mash it up with a few herbs and spices and voila! You have hummus. A drop of honey does also not go amiss either! However, I do draw a huge black line through chocolate hummus, perish the thought…
Children appear to love hummus – in fact in a survey conducted about child nutrition in the UK, hummus dip with carrot, celery and cucumber sticks was a popular choice for a take-in lunchbox. Considering that British school dinners have a bad ‘rep’, it is not surprising.
There is no doubt that hummus is relatively healthy, with a good dose of plant-based protein, unsaturated fat, low carbohydrate level and essential fibre, it is a good choice.
Let us look at some fun facts on hummus: Its popularity in the US has become so widespread, that tobacco farming is slowly but surely being replaced by chickpea production, even though middle eastern varieties are still the most popular in supermarkets.
There have also been movies made about hummus (honestly). Whilst they never exactly break box office records, they have a cult following. Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry and Lady GaGa, may even be seen in their nearest Kroger supermarket, one of the largest in the US) stocking up as worshippers do – they are all huge fans. The hummus industry enjoyed $1 billion worth of sales in 2020, and it is still a rising market.
Whilst most of us will regard hummus as a ‘pot of beige-y stuff that you dip things into’, the use of hummus has increased. It is inexpensive to make, and you can adjust the flavour as much as you want. It can be used as a substitute for mayo (not sure about that one!), a spread, or diluted with water for a salad dressing. My personal favourite is to take a piece of fish, make diagonal cuts and fill with lemon slices before you spread the hummus over then bake the fish. With a few herbs or a bit of spice (sumac is great), it really can elevate the flavour.
As you can see, I am a hummus lover, but as a chef in the past, I do love fiddling with flavours, so take it up a notch and I am sure you will learn to love it as well.
Think you can’t make a soup out of hummus ingredients? Indeed you can! Check out this Creamy Vegan Chickpea and Quinoa soup recipe.
I desperately needed sun – a pure unadulterated dose of Vitamin D, and all that can be had from a winter break, with just a sprinkling of rain to cool the air. Of course, I have not mentioned the hook in this, I cannot go anywhere without food firmly implanted in my brain.
Since COVID-19 has disrupted all my travel plans for around a year, I thought I would look back at some of my travel mementos and notes from my gastronomic adventures, and I came across the Gambia entries. Yes, I said, a bit of warmth in this particularly cold spell that has curbed even more of our outdoor activities.
Father Christmas you may say – what on earth is she talking about! Well, whilst lying peacefully on the beach in glorious temperatures, I heard a speedboat in the distance and looked up to see something moving that was a glorious red colour and what looked like an inflatable reindeer bringing up the rear, and it was! Complete with loudspeaker and ‘ho-ho-ho’, he sped past, breaking the peaceful silence of the few tourists that were on the beach. What a spectacle I shall never forget.
Anyway, back to travel and food, my two favourite topics. Until now, I had never thought of Gambian food as much to be excited about – how wrong can you be? There are of course, the usual array of restaurants serving Italian, Chinese, Indian et al, but they could be quite expensive in comparison to the delicious offerings I had in this amazing country. I had the beach, a lovely hotel (The Kombo Beach) and I even had Father Christmas (probably just a reminder of the cold weather that I had left behind).
Gambian food is like looking at a “boring” chocolate pudding, which when cut into, oozes flavour and surprises, much more than its exterior gives away. Of course, rice is predominant and one of the staple dishes, more or less served with everything. Sweet potatoes, cassava, carrots and butternut squash make up the contingent vegetable starches on Gambian menus. Tomatoes, chillies, all types of onions and aubergines feature, most of which are made into a tasty stew with lots of spice. In fact, the word ‘stew’ appears with great frequency on restaurant menu boards.
As this was the first Christmas away from cooking for as long as I can remember (isn’t it strange that suddenly everyone has a reason not to host this festive period), I had sort of allocated five days of sun and two of exploring the cuisine of the Gambia. I more or less kept to that, until my nostrils twitched to any aroma that I wasn’t sure of! As you know if you have read my articles, I cannot miss a market, food or otherwise, so one of my days was instantly unravelled, as I was from my book and sun lounger.
In advance of my cooking lesson with Ida, all but a celebrity chef here, as everyone knew Ida! She took me to the market first thing to buy the produce for her lesson. We bought a multitude of vegetables, threw large quantities of spices with a mini shovel into bags and then left for a visit to the fishing village market in Tanji. All around are delicious smells and large pots full of various stews. Unfortunately, we had to move fast, to get back and start the preparation for the class. Tempting as it was, we could not stop and browse through the various local craft markets, selling ornate materials, batik, basket ware, almost anything of the handmade variety. Art is also popular along with carvings.
The main dish of our meal was a Gambian classic, a fish stew, slow cooked to bring out the flavours, which Ida strongly believes in. There were vegetables and spices added. As there were so many varieties of fish in the pot, I can only remember a few – grouper, jack, snapper and tiger fish, all caught on coastal waters. The dish was called Benachin, which I believe is the national dish, and sometimes made with chicken and beef – lots of rice, and I mean lots and all in the same pot! Fresh fruit platters duly arrived, as they are not big on desserts there unless you want packaged ice cream.
This was not just about cooking, it was the whole experience that I fell in love with, right from choosing a traditional Gambian outfit (which we dressed in, all 6 of us), to learning about family games, jokes, and general chit-chat about Gambia, and our own lives back in our homes. It truly was home entertainment at its best.
It was a fabulous day, and I fell into bed absolutely exhausted, but just a quick word about Ida herself, who has had an outstanding career in tourism. She is also a champion of women and has a charity set up to encourage entrepreneurship amongst the female inhabitants. She also avidly supports sustainability and ecology.
Her tag phrase about herself is ‘preserving my culture to promote sustainable tourism’, and Ida is certainly a shining star and a beautiful human being.
Ah, the Menton Lemon Festival, one of the highlights of my cheffing days or should I say ‘eating my way round everything lemony’!
When life gives you lemons … head to the French Riviera. That is the approach of our friends across the channel, who descend upon the picturesque frontier town of Menton every year for the annual Lemon Festival. This year, the event was scheduled to take place in February. Unfortunately due to the pandemic, it’s been postponed until 2022! So for moment, we’re going to recall the good times!
Menton is dubbed the Pearl of France for good reason. This beautiful small town, with a population of a little over 30,000 according to the latest census, is located on the bed of the Mediterranean, linking France with Italy. This blesses Menton with a glorious, temperate climate which is reflected in its produce.
Alongside a vibrant fishing industry, it is celebrated for its growth of citrus fruit. Menton is the biggest exporter of lemons through Europe, gaining kudos for the quality of the fruit as much as the quantity. Michelin-starred chefs across Europe insist on having their citrus imported from Menton. Virtually on the borders of Italy, you can enjoy the delights of both French and Italian food and delicacies (think desserts, cakes, pastries mainly!). The ‘citron de Menton’ is one of the top-rated lemon varieties in the world, slightly bitter but still sweet and with a reasonably fine rind which is perfect for dessert and candy making.
This is at the heart of the annual Fête du Citron – or, for those who do not speak French, Lemon Festival. A carnival of colour and vibrancy to rival Rio de Janeiro, Notting Hill or neighbouring Nice, the Lemon Festival is an unmistakably French event, acknowledged by the Ministry of Culture and dubbed an event of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. (Did I mention desserts? Oh yes, I did!)
The origins of the Menton Lemon Festival date back to 1928. An enterprising hotel owner decided to capitalise upon the popularity of the town’s citrus produce, exhibiting a range of lemons and flowers in the front garden of their premises. The plan worked as locals and visitors alike flocked to marvel at the display.
As is the way with good ideas, other local businesses and residents picked up the theme and ran with it, providing similar decor around their own properties. By 1934, the Lemon Festival was officially declared an annual event and attraction.
The festival stepped up a level in 1955 when it was decided that a theme would be assigned to the carnival. In 1955, this was straightforward – a celebration of flowers. Ever since, these themes have grown increasingly elaborate. Some of the particularly interesting and enthusiastic iconographies have included The Signs of the Zodiac (1967), A Trip to the Moon (1973), Wonders of the World (1988), Disneyland in the Land of Lemons (1995) and Menton Creates Cinema (2010).
The Lemon Festival typically attracts 240,000+ visitors. These enthusiasts are primarily from France, though party seekers from around the world are frequently found in attendance. Beware though, it is extremely crowded.
The last festival was dubbed Fantastic Worlds, while the 2022 festival – the 88th – will be a celebration of World Festivals, creating a truly global experience for attendees.
The carnival is a celebration of lemons. It is far from simply a parade of well-decorated lemonade stands, though. Around 140 tonnes of citrus fruit are used to create colourful, imaginative sculptures and floats that delight all in attendance. My favourite was an enormous elephant, who’s eyes moved as you walked by, accompanied by a huge ‘trumping’ noise and swinging to and fro from his trunk! I also must mention the large druid sculpture, which whilst incredible, scared me to death! Do not worry, I have nearly finished on my spectacle comments, but as I am writing this, all I can think about is all the lemon desserts I sampled which caused a half a kilo weight gain!
In the spirit of full disclosure, not all the citrus fruit displayed at the Menton Lemon Festival is local. A great deal, especially oranges, are imported from Spain. The festival is celebrating the spirit of the town and its primary export, having long since evolved beyond a sales pitch. Any stock left over upon the conclusion of the celebrations is sold off at a discounted rate which is another reason for countless people to visit and stock up on contents for their springtime fruit bowls. Make sure though, that you buy the ‘citron de Menton’ – it is one of the top-rated lemon varieties in the world, slightly bitter but still sweet and with a reasonably fine rind, perfect for dessert and candy making.
My favourite dessert (in my colleagues case it was a large mouthful) was an amazing éclair, filled with lemon cream then topped with lightly ‘toasted’ meringue. I have since recreated it several times in our restaurants, but yet to achieve the exact flavour and texture. It is worth the effort, and I cannot begin to tell you how unctuous the filling, pastry and meringue truly were, like floating lemon pillows.
Live music and marching bands add to the party atmosphere, and if you are lucky, you will even catch a sight of the official mascot of the carnival, John Lemon. The fun does not stop when the sun goes down, either. By night, the sculptures are illuminated, and a range of firework and light displays ensure that Menton has plenty of magic in the air.
After a short, enforced hiatus, the 88th annual festival is likely to be among the biggest and best yet – do not miss it!
Where can you put all of these lemons to use? Try our Lemon, Chicken and Orzo soup recipe.
Wherever you go in Croatia, you are never far from crystal blue waters, fairy tale castles and a wide choice of modern and family-style food. Depending on what you want from a holiday or trip, you can be quiet, see amazing sites or simply indulge in a gastronomic tour and vibrant night life. One of the great ways to spend your time and see as much as possible, is to cruise down the picturesque coast.
Croatia has become one of the top European destinations, ranking around No.5 in the ‘must go’ list – and I know why.
Many years ago (more than I care to remember), I was working in London in a top restaurant, when a new, young girl started work. She barely spoke English, was exceptionally shy and claimed to know little about food. Bearing in mind she was starting out as a ‘pot washer’, this did not really matter. However, what was to be revealed about ‘this lack of cooking knowledge’, could not have been further from the truth. Her name is Mika, and she now owns a beautiful restaurant in Hvar, Croatia. Her hidden talents lay in traditional, family recipes, that have been around for generations. You know the story, great grandmother passed it on to grandmother, to mother etc., and it is, trust me, totally delicious and simple to achieve. The only thing some dishes take is time.
Traditional restaurant fare revolves around the ‘slow movement’, even though it is often coupled with beautifully grilled meats, fish and vegetables. This is typical of the Istrian region of Croatia, where food is cooked slowly until it reaches perfection – melt in the mouth meats (such as lamb, veal or chicken), perfect vegetables, and the whole dish usually served with potatoes. This dish is called ‘isbod cripnje’ (translated as ‘under the bell’) as it is cooked underneath a dome, usually terracotta, over burning embers, so you still get that ‘charcoally’ kind of taste. Perhaps because the food is a serious mouthful, and so is the name, it is also called ‘peka’, much more easily remembered.
There are quite a lot of long and slow cooked dishes, most of which are found in the family style restaurants or tavernas, called ‘konobas’. Equally so, if you wander away from the main harbour of Hvar, or any other coastal town, you can find fishermen more than happy to share their ‘brudet or brodetto’, which is a fish stew piled with whatever has been the catch of the day. With its rich tomato base and some great bread to mop it up with, this will certainly be a food highlight of your trip. Often served as the dish of the day in beach bars and konobas. Croatian fishermen can be a little heavy-handed with the white wine that is also in the dish, and the vinegar which is used to preserve the meal for 48 hours, but it’s so yummy!
My trip would not have been complete, without catching up with my dear friend Mika. Now married with three children and still working every day in her restaurant, she had to entertain us, of course! Her restaurant, near the harbour is a mix of traditional and new, including the Croatian delight of raw seafood and delicious grilled langoustines. To top off her seafood extravaganza, she also made us ‘crni rižot’, or black risotto, with squid, cuttlefish, oodles of garlic, red wine and squid ink. My husband loved it, I found it quite intense in flavour and I was not so keen on ending up with black teeth and tongue!
I am not big on eating too much food at lunchtime, so when her children arrived for their lunch, I was a little envious, as it was my kind of style. Platters of cold meats and cheeses with a salad tossed in local olive oil. The meats were so delicious and included varieties such as leg of pork in very thin slices, which had been dried in sea salt and seasoned with rosemary, bay leaves, garlic and pepper – it was mouth-watering. The other meat was served as a carpaccio, from the Istrian long-horned oxen, but I understand this meat is also used in pasta or gnocchi dishes with a sauce or made into a soup. Watch out for ‘boskarin’ on many taverna menus.
Many Croatians take a break around 11am, as even a normal working day starts around 7am. Boskarin is popular served then, but so are pastries and sweet items.
My last culinary dish has to be sweet, doesn’t it! Do try ‘fritule’, a small doughnut style ball – alcoholic or non-alcoholic! This delicacy is popular at holiday times, but because everyone up and down the coast cannot get enough, most shops and bars will have them. There are different varieties, but I loved the one that had lemon and orange rind, and either rum or ‘rakija’, the local spirit. Exceptionally addictive, these little devils!
It has been a while since my last visit, but Mika assures me that much is still the same and with such a place steeped in history, it would be difficult to make it too modern and razzmatazz. Yes, you can eat ‘fast food style’ and disco the night away, but honestly, who would want to?
Croatia is popular with all age groups, including Millennials, but it is now most known for weddings – must get myself invited to one!
No, I have not lost my mind. Who celebrates a carrot, after all? But thousands of people join together in 14 different counties around the world, to celebrate International Carrot Day, or should we say week, as in some places, a day simply isn’t enough!
Purple ones, white ones, yellow ones and of course, the one we know best of all – orange. Such is the world’s love of carrots, International Carrot Day has turned into a week-long extravaganza in many countries, particularly the USA.
Carrots were first discovered being cultivated in the Middle East about 1,000 years ago, in fact Afghanistan have laid claims to them. In those days they were purple and white – it was much later that our orange and yellow hybrid friends took their place on our plates. For much of the population though, a carrot is still orange, and these make up over 85% of carrots sold – purple, white and yellow are less frequently seen in the average supermarket or restaurant.
We seem to be in love with carrots, there is even a carrot museum in the UK (albeit a virtual one), so if you want to learn all about carrots…?
This day (or week) has made its way around the globe and now includes countries such as UK, USA, Sweden, France, Italy, Russia, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Japan et al. It is not the same day in all of these countries but is usually held between April and September – I don’t remember carrots being seasonal, but there must be a reason for this. Coupled with COVID-19, carrot plans have taken a while to be ‘unearthed’.
Find this Carrot, Red Lentil and Ginger soup recipe here!
If you want to join in the celebrations, there is everything from parades (carrot costume compulsory), best carrot, strangest ‘face’ carrot and ‘rudest’ carrot, to name but a few. Then we have ‘best coloured carrots’, best grower, best and most original carrot recipes – you name it. Enthusiasm is rife, to say the least. Carrots are no longer relegated to a snowman’s nose, or for your rabbits to crunch on, or even to promote seeing in the dark – they now have a firm place in society!
It does seem that the world has gone carrot crazy. In Okahune, New Zealand, the world’s largest carrot statue can be seen in pride of place and standing 7.5 metres tall! Originally made for an advertisement for ANZ Bank, they kindly donated it to Okahune, considered to be the best carrot growing region in New Zealand. You certainly know exactly where you are in carrot land!
Our Simply Souperlicious homeland, Switzerland, still holds their carrot festival on the first Wednesday of November each year (pandemic permitting). It is held in Aarau, one of the chief cities in the Aargau region, which is known as ‘the carrot canton’. Now this is a serious market, paying homage to everything carrot, with amazing displays of carrot sculptures – they certainly take their carrots seriously here! Every stall is bedecked with carrots and carrot delights such as carrot cake, carrot muffins, carrot ice cream, carrot pates, jams, pickles, soup, bread, carrot cheese, juices and smoothies and, wait for it, carrot hotdogs! Who would have thought it – probably the 35-40,000 visitors that turn up to see and savour this amazing sight. Must be worth going, just to see what this hotdog looks like!
It just shows you, there is so much more to a carrot than you would ever have thought.
Are you looking at carrots now in a different light – we are! Go celebrate the carrot in all its glory!
So many people love to eat fish, but for them, the actual act of cooking it is off-putting! It could be the smell of fish cooking in the house, but fresh fish should not smell or anything other than the sea and maybe a slight briny aroma. Or it could be a case of bone-phobia, as many fish have bones that are not digestible, even when cooked and some you should not even attempt to swallow.
Thirdly, perhaps you do not know the best way of cooking any particular fish, so perhaps you don’t bother and leave it to the chefs when you dine out. Whichever problem you may have, there are ways of getting round it, and taking advantage of one of the healthiest meals you can provide your body with.
I am a great believer, where possible, to buy fresh fish straight from the fisherman on the quayside, but that is not always possible if you do not live near the sea! If you do, all is well and good, but if not, spend a little time investigating reliable suppliers, selling ‘fresh’ fish, and not fish that has been frozen in packed ice and left to defrost for several days. Unfortunately, a lot of supermarkets fall foul to this and you are faced with a counter full of gloomy looking fish, that have not seen the sea for around a week.
A fishmonger is another alternative, who let it be known that they serve fresh fish, landed that morning – also, keep an eye out for ‘catch of the day’. Check out with friends ,who buy fish where they source theirs from – word of mouth is often the best way. In the UK, Cornwall is famous for its beautiful fish and many Cornish fishmongers will dispatch their catch to you, vacuum-packed, within 24 hours of it being landed. Scotland is another wonderful area for both freshwater and seawater fish, the most famous being Scottish salmon.
If you buy from a supermarket or fishmonger in their shops, there are a few points to look out for:
Seriously folks, take this advice and you will have a fish or two that are the cream of the catch.
There are several methods of cooking fish, and the way you cook it is dependent on the fish that you have chosen. There has been a huge trend towards cooking fish with the skin on to make it crispy, but if you really do not like it that way, take the skin off, or ask your fishmonger to skin and debone it for you. These are the various methods and the fish most suited to each method:
Grilling – suited mainly to oily fish such as salmon, trout and tuna which are firm and meaty. Oily fish can tend to have a stronger aroma, so use marinades, citrus and herbs to cook and go easy on oil or butter.
Poaching – fabulous for fish such as cod, haddock, sole and halibut as poaching is a delicate method that will keep the fish moist and not affect the flavour. You can poach in simply water or water and wine with herbs, a melange of vegetables, or stock.
Baking – also known as ‘en pochette’ where the fish is wrapped in parchment paper or foil. No smells here other than goodness! Inside the packet you can put fresh herbs, slices of citrus fruit, thinly sliced shallots and even part-cooked slices of potato. The fish will be tender, moist and glossy and should melt in your mouth. No need for oil or butter, as the fish cooks in its own juices and those of the fruit or vegetables. Almost any fish can be baked, it is just a case of timing, according to the thickness.
Steaming – Always have a lid for steaming. You can use any type of steamer, including bamboo. It is a gentle way for white or oily fish to be cooked. Marinate the fish with herbs, spices, citrus – try ginger or chilli with Chinese vegetables, it is yum. Sea bass or sea bream is a perfect partner for steaming. Put vegetables under the fish so that it does not stick to the plate.
Stir-frying – A quick and nutritious way to cook fish, particularly seafood. Add vegetables in matchsticks and seasoning of your choice for a quick and tasty meal.
Frying – Not a favourite in my home, as the aroma can last for days, whether you shallow or deep fry. It is also not the healthiest method to eat delectable juicy fish, and too much oil is needed, which will inevitably be absorbed by the fish. If you want to cook this way choose a firm fish, not too thick and cook for around 3 minutes each side.
Fish contains a multitude of nutrients that keep our heart healthy and aid our cognitive skills. High in protein but low in saturated fat, it is a great alternative to meat.
Eating 2 portions a week (one oily) should keep you in good health.
Looking for inspiration for fish soups? Try this soup recipes for pescatarians.
Hawaii is not all about pineapples and ‘lei-leis’. I had travelled to Los Angeles then on to Oahu, a journey taking 22 hours. Whilst everyone refers to it as simply ‘Hawaii’, it is a conglomerate of eight islands, once called the Sandwich Islands.
Hawaii is a multi-cultural group of islands. Such is this diversity, that it makes for interesting mealtimes if you stick to traditional Hawaiian food – the locals can make even the most exotic dishes with beautiful presentation, out of fruits, vegetables, fish and seafood. Meat features, but never as much as our fish friends.
Of course, there are other influences from China, Japan and India, along with the ubiquitous Italian and ‘all-American’ fare, but do eat as the locals do, off the beaten track, or from one of the best market set ups I have ever visited, in Honolulu. Called ‘Simply Foods’ (no connection to Marks and Spencer in the UK) it is far from that – the mix of fresh food is incredible, but it is joined by a smoked section, as well as everyday normal canned produce – it’s a Hawaiian shopper’s paradise and run ethically. Students are employed in exchange for tuition fees, and some profits also go to local farmers and growers. Upstairs you can buy handmade goods, again all ethically produced. Ever seen bath towels made from bamboo? Sounds an ideal world.
This market is huge, and I mean huge. I wondered with such a selection of fresh foods (the fish is always delivered that day, fresh from the boats), how the smaller Honolulu fish market coped with such a competitor. I found out – it is almost like a co-operative scheme. The fish market supplies the Whole Foods giant with the daily fresh fish, so everyone gets a share of this lucrative industry.
Alani, my delightful guide (and somewhat of a Hawaiian food guru), convinced me to stop and try some of the delights of the hot food bar, where some 60 dishes change daily, but others are popular (think mac ‘n’ cheese in various forms). This was no ordinary mac bar – you could have tomato and spinach versions, jalapeno versions, and well goodness knows what else!
I declined the mac and cheese, wanting something, shall we say, a little more Hawaiian! I sampled the non-GMO papaya and corn drink (delish!) and some fresh squeezed sugar cane juice. Hmm…not so keen on the latter, I am not a sugar freak, and to me it also seemed alcoholic, but I was assured it was not. After all, I had a lot of eating to get through in the next few days!
Let us talk ‘proper’ food. I wanted to try ‘poke’, one of the most traditional Hawaiian dishes. I have tried ‘an excuse for a ‘poke’ in London, and remained unimpressed, probably as I knew that the raw fish that is part of the ‘ahi-poke’ offering, was far from fresh.
We were joined for lunch by two of Alani’s sisters (big families in Hawaii) for a meal at what they determined as the best ‘poke’ in the business. They were not wrong. I was not sure what I was expecting, but as we drove down a very narrow track, and got closer and closer to the ocean, I could smell the sea – fresh and inviting.
It was a relatively small house, nothing ostentatious, but with a large terrace outside with an awning to cover it. There must have been over 20 people, all in groups, tucking into aloha bowls and various ‘poke’ dishes. The menu is printed, and apparently does not change from month to month, as the produce is always readily available. You must choose from six sections to make up your bowl – a base (noodles or various different rice), a protein (usually fish or seafood), salad, other vegetables, dressing or marinade, and other side dishes. The beauty of this is you can have as little or as much of a portion as you want!
However, the poke was only part of it. We had an array of other dishes (complimentary) that included he’e (octopus), asparagus shrimp, a delicious, spiced mango dish, ono (also called ‘wahoo’), and mahi-mahi (probably the most widely favoured in Hawaii). Grilled or raw, both were stunningly cooked or prepared.
No room unfortunately, for dessert, although I understand that shaved ice is extremely popular to clean up a ‘fishy mouth’! ‘Tiger’s Blood’ flavour is a go-to shaved ice, with a combination of strawberry and watermelon, with just that hint of coconut. You can find elaborate shaved ice stalls along the roadside too.
I was only spending a night on the main island and leaving to visit some of the other Hawaiian delights. My next meal was breakfast – could not manage Portuguese eggs and rice, so opted for a nice fruit bowl, an ‘acai’, at an old surf club on the beach. Alani used to be a professional surfer, so I discovered. I would be amazed if she could stand up on a surfboard, if she ate like we had every day!
Food snobbery exists (sad to say) but should never be confused with being a ‘foodie’. A foodie to us means an appreciation of good food, beautifully cooked and mouth-wateringly tasty. Food snobbery is beyond the realms of quality and taste, it is a whole different echelon, wrongly directed towards ‘best must be the best to have’ – it is no different to ‘having to have the fastest and most elaborate car’, or only designer clothes. Same principle, different commodity, and at its very worse – utterly pretentious nonsense!
There are lots of reasons why and how food snobs demonstrate their obsession. Some of these are downright hilarious, and some, quite frankly, verge on being pathetically pompous!
There is no real stereotype to a food snob, but perhaps you will recognise some of the ‘symptoms’ we list in this article.
Is food snobbery a way to show off or boast about your wealth? It certainly can be when nothing less than Michelin Star all the way will suffice! Whilst the Michelin Guide is supposed to be the equivalent of the bible in terms of belief, it somewhat trades on its long and unchallenged reputation.
Classic Signs of Food Snobbery
You may or may not recognise these, and equally so, have your own ideas as to what a food snob is. Getting to grips with ‘real food’ can be tricky, whether it is a shack on the roadside, or an elaborate damask, crystal and fine porcelain kind of number. It is all about the food, isn’t it? Feel free, to throw up your hands in horror or shake your head in disbelief – we do.
There are a multitude of other potential signs, including never buying things in packets, ready-made salad dressings and dips are a no-go zone etc.
There actually is not much wrong with being a food snob if you use it in the right way and the right direction! Your opinion is yours, but others are entitled to their own!
The bride looked amazing, dressed in an extremely pale pink dress, buttoned down the front and with arms and shoulders covered. Of course, the dress was full length, as modesty is expected in Iran.
I was so happy that Aveley had invited me to her wedding, even though I had not seen her for some years, we had kept in touch. The name ‘Aveley’ means ‘pretty as a bird’, and she certainly was!
Flying into the country I was not sure what to expect, even though Aveley had told me the basic rules and how a wedding ceremony and feast would play out.
Persian weddings (and feasts) can go on for several days, with both pre- and post-nuptial celebrations. You can eat until you burst and every day was a different spread of flavoursome foods. Just when you think it is all over, more and more dishes and brought out to the beautifully laid and decorated tables.
The food – OMG!
I had dabbled in what I thought was ‘Persian food’, but what I ate in four days was far beyond any culinary dreams. I shared a house with Aveley and two other girls, and whilst she was an amazing cook, she was more than happy to sit down with some nibbles and watch a movie. My real taste for Persian food came during this time and I am so glad she shared it with me.
Persian cooking is all about balance, flavours, texture (often raw with cooked and hot with cold!) taste and a mixture of herbs and spices that make even the simplest of rice dishes has the same opulence as a Michelin star meal. As poor students, we made good use of rice and flatbreads, which Aveley cooked to perfection, as per her mother’s rules. Crispy rice dishes, such as ‘tahdig’ would often accompany some cheap and cheerful, spiced grilled chicken – but it was what she did with it that made all the difference.
For some reason, I hated aubergines with a vengeance (unattractive, mushy and not pleasant were my thoughts), but that all changed when Aveley made ‘bademjoon’. To call it a stew shows no reverence, even though that is exactly what it is – but with a difference. Tomatoes, aubergine, lemon and grapes never tasted so good. I was converted.
Another dish she would often make was ‘kuku sabzi’ – a sort of frittata so full of herbs and spices, but the centre of it included blueberries! Sounds a little weird, but as we had a farm next door to our house, eggs, herbs and fruit were in plentiful supply – I guess the farmer took pity on the number of impoverished students who had stayed in that accommodation over the years!
The Wedding Feast
Now we are talking! I am not even sure I can do this happy event justice, to be honest. But I will do my best here. Every available female (apart from the bride) took part in making this amazing feast at Aveley’s beautiful home, just outside Tehran. There must have been around twenty women of all ages! The males of the species though, conveniently disappeared!
The ‘Sofreh Aghd’ is the celebration on the actual day of the ceremony. Tables are bedecked with glorious floral arrangements and symbolic items, including a large mirror reflecting the union of the couple. Very romantic!
Persian wedding feasts are all about sharing. I had never seen such a variation of dips and crudites in my life, along with crunchy pickled vegetables and wedges of Persian bread. Everything was so colourful – green (spicy avocado dip and creamy spinach dip), hummus, smoky aubergine and a vibrant beetroot dip with feta cheese and walnuts – yum!
Following this a multitude, or should I say rainbow, of salads appeared. Rice dishes, bulghur wheat dishes (fattoush), herby cucumber, pomegranate salad, roasted aubergine salad with quinoa – I could go on forever!
I guess the highlight though were the hot dishes – several types of tagines and a choice of chicken, lamb or vegetarian. Kebabs or should I say ‘kabobs’ of sumac-spiced chicken and lamb with paprika and mint. Two whole barbecued goats as well!
By this time, I was slipping under the table and my dress was getting a little tight! However, I just had to have space for dessert! There were a lot of fresh fruit platters and cheese, but the aroma coming from the rosewater and vanilla panna cottas was impossible to refuse. I am sure they do not call them panna cottas, but that is what they seemed to be!
Unfortunately, I could not manage the wedding cake, but Aveley’s mother had some pieces cut to have with coffee the next morning. I cannot resist pistachios!
Since 2014, millions of people around the world have been getting on board with Veganuary. Created to promote the health and ethical benefits of a vegan diet, Veganuary requires participants to eat a plant-based diet throughout the whole of January as a taster of this increasingly popular lifestyle choice.
In 2020, it was estimated that less than one percent of the world’s population is vegan and, unfortunately, figures show that four out of five people give up on their Veganuary quest after a few days. While it may take a little getting used to, with a bit of planning, conquering Veganuary can be a piece of (egg-free) cake.
The easiest way to fail Veganuary is to keep non-vegan food and drinks in the fridge and cupboard. Once you have finished the Christmas leftovers, it is a good idea to remove all animal products from your home to be replaced with vegan options.
When embarking on Veganuary, it is tempting to get all ambitious with complex recipes and fancy vegetables. Unfortunately, this can often lead to disappointment for beginners. Instead, start simple with dishes that you are familiar with and know that you like, for example, garlic mushrooms, salad and simple pasta dishes. Stock up with herbs and spices, flavouring is of the essence.
These days, most restaurants offer a comprehensive vegan menu and, while the doors to our eateries may be closed for a while, you can still check out their website menus to see what kind of dishes they are serving up for vegan customers – it is also worth registering with these sites and many send out newsletters which include recipes. See what takeaways they have, that is another possibility to keep you on track and out of the kitchen.
For many people, embarking on Veganuary tends to invite derision from friends and family – and more so if after giving it a try, they end up with egg on their face when they decide that it is not for them. To avoid reactions which can tend to be demoralising, avoid shouting about your Veganuary journey to friends and family and on social media and if you succeed, you can always crow about it afterwards!
I am not going to lie – Veganuary can be tough, particularly if you have had a penchant for meat all of your life. Some people say as soon as they smell bacon cooking, they cannot resist. January is cold and dark, and the celebrations of Christmas and New Year seem like a distant memory. If you find that you do not want to continue after giving it a go, it is not the end of the world.
You can always start to add vegan elements to your diet without going all in and give Veganuary another try next year! Alternatively, try it on a different month, the summer months may be better for some.
So, if you’ve decided to get on board with Veganuary, stock up the fridge and store cupboard with vegan treats, remove temptation and, don’t forget to sign up to MyVegan’s Veganuary Challenge. Let us know how you get on, how you feel after trying it for a month, and how it may affect your health.
Most importantly, do not think of this as a punishment, there are plenty of delicious meals you can make that follow the vegan lifestyle. Veganism is a way of life, and those that choose to adopt it, do so willingly – and by the way, they are not ‘weird’, as some people think!
Maybe the thought of a New Year, new you. It may be the boost to your health that you really need, plus a sense of achievement. Make sensible choices (things that you know you enjoy that follow the ethos), and do not go for the first promoted item in a supermarket that you see. Taking risks with food will not provide the results you may want!
Try these Vegan Vegetable soups recipe here!
Here is just a short list of vegan swaps that you may not know.
Dairy free butters, such as nut butter (almond, cashew, etc.)
Same principle as butters
Only vegetable oils (e.g., olive oil, coconut oil, sunflower oil)
Cashew cream for sauces, or full fat coconut (you can whip this) or use it for curries.
Wide varieties available in supermarkets, or try cashew cheese, similar to mozzarella and good as a ‘gooey’ topping
Try vegan substitutes for sausages, bacon. Use mushrooms as a swap for a meaty texture. Beans and lentils for thickening. Yeast extract or balsamic for flavouring.
Chickpea flour for omelettes, frittatas, or tofu in scrambled ‘eggs’. Use soy yoghurt for sponges and baking. Substitute egg whites with Aquafaba to make meringues and mayonnaise.
It must be better than ‘Movember’ – we do not all have moustaches!
It is easy to make magic in Mauritius, believe me. I have only been once and have yearned to return ever since.
The view from the air is incredible as you bank and sweep over the island to land at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport (yes, I struggle with the name!). Stunning white beaches, a central plateau and mountains dotted around the centre, encompassing small villages alongside luxury villas and hotels.
Mauritius is just over 2,000 sq.km, but boy, does this island pack a punch, from the mixture of residents to so many dining opportunities and an eclectic range of cuisines. In most of the country Mauritian Creole is the language spoken, but many inhabitants speak French and English. This is even more highlighted by the food – essentially Creole and French, but once again, there are smatterings of Indian, Chinese and African food. English food, well, not so much unless you bundle it up with American standard food such as fried chicken and burgers, along with a ubiquitous bowl of chips! You can also get the obvious pastas and pizzas, but unless you want a ‘grab and go’, stick to the island delights, you will not regret it.
No visit to Mauritius would be complete without the delights of the capital, Port Louis. A bustling and vibrant town, with fantastic markets and street food, not to be missed. You can very easily spend a whole morning and into the afternoon there (not too late as it does get very hot). Save some time for the beach!
After a day relaxing (long distance travel and I are not best friends and it took almost 13 hours on the plane), we went into Port Louis to soak up the atmosphere of this delightful island. We had a guide to take us round the back streets as well as through the markets and street food stalls that she knew were the best. Experience really does matter.
Sampling the local snacks whilst sitting on an uncomfortable seat is apparently ‘how you do it’. You do not take it away; you just sit and eat. Listening to the locals gabbling away in a mixture of French and I guess, Creole, was intriguing but almost impossible to understand. Being a kindly local bunch, they quickly broke into English and more standard French, which I can also speak. Phew! That was a relief!
Yummy treats awaited us – gateaux piments (deep fried chilli cakes) were crisp and spicy made from chickpeas, spring onions, coriander and very strong green chillies. Our street trader offered us extra chilli sauce which we liberally applied – big mistake! You could say they were an upgraded version of a falafel, but a whole lot spicier!
I love ‘roti’ and this is what we had next. Such an assortment of toppings to dollop on your unleavened flat bread. The trader, a quite large lady dressed in bright colours offered us several topping to taste, but by far our favourite was the ‘rougaille’ – a delicious Creole sauce made from a base of tomatoes, but we were informed that every family makes them differently. We thoroughly enjoyed ours, made from onions, curry leaves, garlic, thyme and ginger – maybe there was some coriander in there too? This was not going to be the last time we tasted this wonderful sauce – we dined in a small beachside restaurant along the coast and sampled their Creole Sausages with Rougaille and Rice. My colleague boldly stated she would have preferred mashed potatoes with it! The sausages were cooked in probably the biggest pan I have ever seen and left to fry off in their own natural fat. The fact that the place was totally crowded means it was good, in fact, excellent.
As you can see, I could wax lyrically forever about Mauritian food, so I will just get to the amazing dinner we had with a local family. ‘Mama Mimi’ as she is locally known was born in Mauritius but moved to France when she was 7 years old. She moved back to Mauritius when she was 20, so she knew her ‘onions’ about French food, as colloquial speak would say. We could not believe the size of what can only be called a banquet – all for five of us!
Dholl puri, butter bean curry, spicy fish balls, fish vindaye (made with indiscernible fish), pickled fish with onions, turmeric and mustard seeds and a garlic and ginger sauce) appeared as if by magic on the huge table outside. It was a vibrant shade of yellow but OMG! How delicious was this?
There were roti, plenty of them to mop up the sauces afterwards. Mimi cooked the roti on a flat griddle called a ‘tawa’. There was no sign of anything that a carnivore would enjoy, but I love fish anyway. It is also one of the staple foods of the island.
Whilst so hospitable and friendly, Mama Mimi would not divulge her recipes to me. I have tried to recreate the fish vindaye many times, have come close, but not quite there. Another trip maybe?
There were so many more dishes we tried on our trip, all with spicy elements, so I was grateful to calm my stomach down with amazing grilled lobster at yet another beachside restaurant.
One thing I learned (rather too late) is to turn down chilli now and again, by saying ‘pah for’ – that means ‘not spicy’. Is this a turn on the French ‘pas fort’ – I still do not know!
Come on guys – lighten up! Carbs are not your enemy!
Carbohydrates are arguably the most misunderstood of the three macronutrients, vilified and restricted in some groups, whilst being favoured and promoted in others.
Carbs, just like any other food stuff, are neither “good” nor “bad”, how they are integrated into our diet determines how healthy they are, not what the internet, media or your favourite reality TV star says.
In this article we’re going to cover the various roles of carbohydrates within our body, why they may be perceived as “good” and “bad” and how you can use carbohydrates to fuel yourself in a healthy, unrestrictive way!
The primary function of carbohydrates is to provide your body with energy, either presently (when consumed), or in the form of stored carbohydrate (glycogen) which can be used when needed. These stored carbohydrates are kept within your muscle but also within your liver too.
Additionally, certain forms of carbohydrate, namely fibre and other more complex carbohydrates, can aid in digestion, with adequate fibre intakes being associated with a reduced risk of obesity, type II diabetes and heart disease.
Carbs may also contribute uniquely beneficial roles for those looking to manage their weight (in addressing cravings, reducing stress, improving satiety etc.).
Whilst carbohydrates are not necessary in our diet (as we are able to create them ourselves), that does not necessarily mean they are not optimal for health.
How they affect our health though is dependent on how we incorporate them into our diet as carbohydrates come in two predominant forms: “simple” and “complex”.
Carbohydrates come in all different shapes and sizes (or to be more precise, lengths) and serve many different functions.
The “simple” carbohydrates are those most often associated with being “bad” whereas the “complex” carbohydrates are those we associate with being “good”. All forms of carbohydrate have a place in our diet.
The “simpler” a carbohydrate is, the more rapidly it can be digested, broken down and absorbed into our system. This leads to an elevation in our blood glucose (sugar) levels which leads to a subsequent rise in insulin secretion. Insulin is a hormone which signals to our cells to take in the circulating blood sugar where it can then be used as energy or stored.
Long term, repeated exposure to simple carbohydrates has been associated with an increased risk of being insulin resistant which eventually leads to metabolic dysfunction and diabetes. Whilst this is certainly a factor, it is not as straightforward as simple carbohydrates can cause diabetes, this condition is the end result of many lifestyle factors (including obesity, lack of exercise, inadequate fibre intakes, poor sleep, hygiene etc.) which likely play a much more important role than carbohydrates themselves.
Additionally, these “simple” carbohydrates are not all “bad” and, again, it is not their inclusion in our diet which is necessarily bad, but rather how we incorporate them into our diets. After all, who could imagine a winter-warming soup without an element of carbs?
Many people will restrict foods which contain these carbohydrates and these highly restrictive behaviours can lead to bingeing/overeating of said foods, which can ultimately contribute to weight gain, as well as poor relationships with ourselves and our diet.
Remember, if you suddenly decide to exercise more than before, these type of carbs will give you energy, which you must have.
On the flipside of the carbohydrate spectrum we have the complex carbohydrates, these do not need much defending as important components of our diet considering what was mentioned previously around fibre, but other complex carbohydrates play important roles too!
Try this Creamy Vegan Quinoa, Chard and Chickpea soup recipe!
They take longer to break down and appear in our blood stream as glucose, and so provide a more stable source of energy for our body. This helps to maintain energy levels throughout the day, conk out our cravings and helps us to concentrate!
Carbohydrates come in a whole variety and to loop them all into being “good” or “bad” is a gross simplification. All carbohydrates are important and it is not what we’ve been told about them that matters, it’s how we use them within our diet that determines how healthy they are.
Carbohydrates, like any other nutrient or food group, should not be restricted. Restriction causes more harm than good in almost all cases (unless it is for a specific medical condition) and can lead to binging, poor relationships with self and food as well as missing out on the experience’s foods can offer and compliment.
You would not have Christmas without some chocolate or Halloween without the candy, right?
As a New Year’s resolution, make carbohydrates work for you. If anything, incorporating them into your diet the right way will elevate everything else in your life!
Yes, really! The Chinese have been doing it for thousands of years and even European countries adopted it some time ago. In recent years it has had a huge resurgence for both economical and health reasons. In Medieval times, no thought was given for a whole pig, cow or deer to be served up and cut up in front of Henry VIII’s guests – in fact, it was considered an honour.
Our prehistoric ancestors (think cavemen and women) were essentially vegetarian, until they managed to catch an unsuspecting beast. This would then be crudely cut up and cooked, generally over a pit of boiling water. Sounds appetising – for most of us not, but there can be some high quality nutritional benefits. This would potentially last them for days on end.
Of course, vegans and vegetarians may throw up their hands in horror at the thought, but if you are going to eat an animal, then why not eat all of it? Maybe you and I do not fancy eating a cow’s snout, or a pig’s tail, but it is amazing how much nutritional value can be gleaned from all parts of our animals. Then there is the ‘oh-so’ glorious broth that can be produced – maybe you do not realise that some manufacturers of canned soups use all parts of an animal to make the basis of their non-vegetarian soups?
Let us get one thing straight. Nobody is suggesting that you eat every single part of an animal – just be more conscious of the fact that there is more you can do with it than just buy the usual steaks, mince and fillet from the supermarket or butcher. The principle is – make better use of the more nutritious parts of the animal than you currently do, but do not eat the parts you do not want to. It is as simple as that. Remember too, that stews are not just for winter and in this day and age, even the tougher cuts of meat can be delicious when slow-cooked. I once ate casseroled pigs cheeks, which were divine – but if someone told me what they were beforehand, would I have eaten them? Sometimes you have to not think too much, maybe.
Did you know that a large percentage of animal fat is sold and used by the cosmetics industry, in the production of soaps and face creams? This is called ‘tallow fat’ – makes for very tasty roast vegetables, particularly potatoes. Recipe developers recommend using goose fat or duck fat for your roasties, but tallow fat is equally as tasty and more economical, as often your butcher will simply throw it away. You probably will not find it in supermarkets, so try to find a butcher that will supply it.
For those of you old enough to remember, mothers and grandmothers would use up every part of a chicken. Once it had been roasted and served for lunch or dinner, the carcass would have been boiled up to break it down and form a basis for a nutritious soup. Many nationalities still do this – in fact, I do, and the remains of a Christmas, Easter or Thanksgiving turkey! Bone broth is an absolute gold mine of nutrients and contains around 16 vital amino acids for a healthy body, and particularly your gut. Maybe, when you were a child and having a stinking cold, Grandma would make chicken soup – I bet that this would be based on chicken broth, with some vegetables added! Old Wives Tale? Nutritional advice disagrees that this is a fantasy, and advocates boiling up a carcass then straining it through muslin for a clear broth.
Whilst discussing this topic – do not forget fish. You can make a wonderful fish broth for soups such as Bouillabaisse or add it to a Chinese or Thai dish for a deep and wonderful flavour. It is done in restaurant kitchens throughout the world. Fish heads, fish tail, crab claws, you name it. Give it a try, at least once.
This is not a sermon, nor a soap box speech, but if you are a carnivore or a pescatarian, then eat what you can and make our produce more sustainable. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, that is OK too – live your life the way you want to.
Most of Western Europe is still adapting to the principle that ‘nose to tail’ can only be good for your health and make life more sustainable and economical.
It is that time of year again. The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder and things are, generally, just a little slower. Whilst Christmas is just around the corner, and soon homes across the world will be lit up in celebration of the arrival of old Saint Nick himself, the lead up to the festive fun can seem to last an age, with October and November really beginning to drag.
So, instead of shivering as we count down the minutes, hours, days and weeks to the yuletide season, why not revisit that which has always provided some warmth and comfort at any and all times of the year – comfort food!
And what food could be better for the soul, and for your tastebuds, than the ultimate comfort food, homemade mac’n’cheese.
Mac’n’cheese (or macaroni cheese) is a dish of cooked macaroni pasta and a cheese sauce, traditionally and commonly made with cheddar. It can however also incorporate other ingredients, such as spices, breadcrumbs, meat and vegetables, and glorious lobster.
In this article we are going to show you how you can really put the “oomph” into your mac’n’cheese using a range of different types of cheeses as well as a few tips and tricks to really elevate the texture and taste of this wonderfully warming winter wonder dish!
Choosing the right Cheese
Whilst cheddar is most associated with crafting a heart-warming bowl of mac’n’cheese, it certainly does not have to be where our imagination ends. The whole experience of food is not simply in the taste, texture, sights and smells but also in the exploratory nature of trying something new. With so many different cheeses available, it is a ‘no-brainer’.
In one of the classes I teach, I set my home cooks the ‘oomph challenge’, and here are some of the ones they came up with.
Gruyere, a hard-yellow Swiss cheese, can take what is often seen as a dish harking back to childhood to one now reaped in sophistication.
This densely flavoured cheese can bring layers of sweetness and nuttiness to a dush that will change the entire culinary experience. It melts beautifully, creating a thicker, heavier, more dense cheese component to the dish, we are big fans!
The American dreamboat, Monterey jack (hailing from Monterey California) is an awesome substitute for cheddar.
A much milder flavour than most cheeses, Monterey is great if you’re looking to make further additions outside of just changing up the cheese, some finely diced chilli or garlic, maybe a little smoky bacon or even a dash or two of smoked paprika are all fantastic compliments.
Where Monterey really wins though is in the texture. It melts like a buttery dream and the cheese sauce element of the dish becomes this oozing, velvety blanket covering the macaroni. Truly mouth-watering, especially when the smell fills your kitchen and you can virtually taste it before you’ve even finished cooking!
There is indulgent and then there is indulgent. This is one for the cheese afficionados out there. Blue cheese packs a potent flavour profile, as I am sure you are aware. Adding it to a mac’n’cheese dish brings a whole new layer of sophistication.
A tangy yet tasteful option, adding one or two handfuls of spinach or a rough layer of breadcrumbs on top can elevate the texture to match the richness of the cheese and make it a real showstopper at any dinner party!
Once the cheese of French Kings, Brie is another scintillating substitute for cheddar. When melted, Brie creates a cheese sauce which is more buttery, runny, and creamy than you would ever believe. Its flavour ranges from mild to extremely nutty and tangy and it is this unpredictable element that adds an element of excitement to that first mouthful.
This rich cheese promises to instantly take your humble mac and cheese to one of decadence and luxury. It is no surprise that this creamy wonder was once considered only fit for royalty.
Dutch Gouda is a semi-soft cheese appreciated for its smooth, creamy texture and mild flavours. Aged Gouda varieties possess a deeper, more pungent flavour whilst younger varieties tend to be more mellow and rich. When melted it has a firmer texture than brie but is relatively akin to it.
Personally, we prefer the smoked Gouda options. This, with some finely diced shallots and to add even more smokiness some smoky bacon pieces, is simply a wonderous occasion for your taste buds and the kitchen smells are just incredible.
The last of our cheddar cheese alternatives, parmesan. This a cheese with a wonderfully gritty texture, yet with a complex palette of flavours ranging from hints of nuttiness to elements of fruity.
Whilst parmesan is certainly not one of the first cheese types you’d think of when it comes to the perfect mac’n’cheese, we can assure you that once you try it, you’ll never look back.
A dish incorporating parmesan coupled with breadcrumbs, garlic and even, if you are feeling particularly adventurous, lobster is one that would have your friends, family or significant other singing your high praises for weeks!
We absolutely love this one, it takes elements of other classical dishes, infusing it with another and creates a whole new taste and texture sensation. A must try!
Mac’n’cheese is a dish that would be honestly hard to improve. It is, after all, one of the world’s favourite comfort foods. Challenging the existing narrative though could make it even more exciting this festive period.
We implore you to try some of our cheddar substitute suggestions. If you thought mac’n’cheese could not get any better, just wait until you try out these!
I had never heard of the Lagotto Romagnolo breed of dog – but I have fallen in deep and passionate love. Furry, cute, smart and downright lovable – the dog, not me.
To say I am a huge dog fan is a vast understatement – I am obsessed with our furry friends! Please note that I have put Coco the dog first, before the man himself. Was I more excited to see the dog at work than the expert in motion? The answer to that should be obvious!
Giulio has been truffle hunting since his childhood years with his father and his grandfather before. On the surface he seems quite dour and stern, but underneath that he is a soft and gentle man, but he does assert a ‘rod of iron’ when it comes to Coco’s behaviour. In my very bad Italian, I understood when he told me that he must be strict with Coco, in order for him to know what his role was when searching for the delicate truffles and to obey the rules. This is so important to protect the truffles from over-digging or over-excitement, which will ruin the fungi.
Our education on truffles started the first evening, with Giulio explaining what we would be doing for the next three days. It was a lot to take in, to be fair, and some of what he told us was quite astonishing. As he is so passionate about his (and Coco’s art), he related that there were many ‘unscrupulous hunters’, who even go so far as to poison the dogs by putting ‘fake smells’ under the ground. When I asked him about visiting San Miniato, our nearest town if he was too busy to take us, he was quite vocal about ‘truffle rogues’ selling inferior products to trap tourists to pay inflated prices. The result of this was he more or less said he would not allow it without him!
We were up at 6am for breakfast, a wonderful repast of home baked bread, home cured meats and local cheeses. Alessandra, his wife, told us that Giulio ‘liked to get going’ before the sun came up, which was around 7am. Fortunately, as we are early risers, we were ready for our exciting day. Coco seemed to know what was happening and behaved just as a sniffer dog would do – looking forward to his discoveries with anticipation.
After a brisk walk from the farmhouse in light rain, we entered the woodlands for our hunt. It took about 40 minutes before Coco was all but in a state of frenzy and starting to dig furiously into the ground. Giulio shouted some kind of command and Coco started to sniff, rather than dig so excitedly. The next moment, there was a little more shouting, then Giulio bent down and retrieved our first prize, pulling it so gently from the earth! To be honest, I had never seen a truffle so big and so ugly! It seemed to resemble a bulbous, warty nose that you would expect in a Charles Dickens novel. When Giulio wafted it under my nose, I have to say I was somewhat nonplussed – it was earthy, a little stagnant in odour that I wondered what all the fuss was about. Our host was more than happy – it can take a few hours to find your first truffle.
An hour later, and deeper into the woods, we found our next truffle – much smaller and less odious! There was a great deal of ‘tutting and shrugging’ going on, as our host seemed disappointed. He decided that was enough for the day, and that we would go back for a late lunch and try a different area the next morning.
After a delicious late lunch of pasta with truffles and parmesan, we went for a nap, totally exhausted. How do they do this almost every day?
The next morning, I stayed at the farmhouse while my husband ventured out again with Coco and Giulio. I needed a tour of the kitchen and store cupboard and some of Alessandra’s knowledge on what to do with truffles. Primarily, as a food writer, I must know the product and its uses! I was not disappointed, even though we had to use the translation methods on my iPhone! Why do Italians speak so fast?
Alessandra recommended using the truffles they collect in egg and cheese dishes for strength of flavour. She also made truffle oil and truffle butter. Pasta seemed to be the base of most dinners using truffles as it does not overwhelm the flavour.
Our last day involved a visit to San Maniato and the market, where Alessandra often sells some of her products. Before heading to the airport, we stopped and had a pizza at one of Giulio’s friends’ restaurants – that was one hell of a pizza with grated truffles on the top and no charge!
I have tried truffles in the UK since our visit – they just have not tasted the same.
Back in the 1970’s, you really did not hear much about Moroccan food, and we didn’t know what we were missing. This beautifully spiced and exotic dish is a dinner party winner, can be prepared in advance and is so full of flavour.
Tagines, or tajines is not the actual name of the food, it is the dish in which it is cooked – another thing I learned. Today, every market and souk is full of the tagine pots which are made from clay, and the brightly decorated glazed or unglazed dishes are everywhere. The conical lid is almost a trademark of this attractive pot.
I flew into Rabat, the capital, as there was no airport at my final destination, Marrakech, which is where everyone told me to go to. You could spend days just wandering around the main square, Jema el Fnaa, with its intriguing stalls selling everything from clothes, traditional Moroccan slippers, huge ‘buy as much as you like’ local spices and, of course, the clay tagine pots. There were also street food stalls and restaurants dotted around – and my nemesis – snake charmers! Moroccan coffee was another experience to try – thick and syrupy and strong. Served with a glass of water, which you really needed!
Morocco is a country that is relatively self-supporting, and what you cannot get that is grown there, they import from Spain. As well as vegetables, meat and fish, grains can accompany many dishes, even though only 2 percent of the land is suitable for cultivating grains.
Oranges, lemons, apricots (quite often preserved) are abundant, as are strong flavoured greens, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Pulses such as chickpeas are also frequently used, but having said that, if you watch the Moroccan people eating a tagine dish, it is normally with flatbread, to scoop up the juices from the meal. This bread is locally known as khabz’ and resembles a pitta bread, but much softer. One trader showed me how to make a khabz, and I still use the recipe today.
Before I sat down for a taste of my first authentic tagine, I wandered around the market square to see the array of spices on offer – I was astounded at how many there were and I didn’t know all of the names. Some stalls had the names in English, but others did not – so it was very much a ‘that looks like cinnamon’ kind of experience. I was only in Morocco for three days, so I decided to use a guide, and that turned out to be the best idea. He took me to other places away from the main square, where prices were cheaper but still with a great selection.
Do you love chickpea as much as us? Try this Turmeric, Chicken and Chickpea soup recipe here!
Waiting until my last morning (the market opened once the first call to prayer by the muezzin and until very late at night), I purchased literally heaps of spices in huge plastic bags, so I had to buy another suitcase in the market! I was spoilt for choice, but brought back Ras al Hanout (traditional Moroccan spice), saffron, cumin, anise seed and some beautiful plump olives steeped in harissa. I could not resist both their olive oil and their argan oil. Youssef, my guide, told me that his wife used argan oil to cook, but also to put on her face and use as a conditioner for her hair!
In Marrakech these days, there are plenty of traditional cooking schools that serve meals and takeaways – these places are the real roots of Moroccan food, cooked and served by women as a non-profit organisation. Any money taken is used to provide food for the poor of Marrakech. You can join in with the classes or simply eat there!
I was concerned that maybe things would be too hot or too spicy, but the subtleness of the flavourings was on point. With a blend of sweet and sour, fruitiness and light spicing, my lamb tagine was perfection. The lamb melted in my mouth, the vegetables and fruit additions still had texture – quite surprising for the length of time the dish is cooked for (up to 4 hours). Bread was perfect – for me, better than couscous to eat with the tagine.
We finished with some sweet apricot pastries – again, light and fluffy with delightfully sweet apricots and sultanas (or were they raisins, I can’t really remember!).
I can only say ‘go to Morocco’. Yes, it is touristy, but it is an experience you will never forget. Steeped in culinary history, it is a must. I did not have time for the sights, nor a trip into the desert under the stars, but I will next time!
Walking through the door of the first professional kitchen I had worked in, was a terrifying experience! I remember there being an incredible amount of noise, clattering pans, doors being opened and shut and chef shouting at the top of his voice to anyone who was not moving fast enough! There were over forty chefs of all levels in the brigade, but it seemed far more as I cast my eyes around the kitchen.
Even though I had spent two years at chef’s academy, the first lesson I learned was to do everything the head chef’s way, not necessarily the way you were taught! He was an exacting man; you did not argue with him and you certainly did not change his methods.
There was a lot of sophisticated equipment that I had never used before, but the great thing about that was I soon learned what kit I enjoyed working with and what was the most necessary, or labour-saving and needed to be used with respect.
Working in your own domestic kitchen is nothing like a commercial kitchen but following certain methods will always stand you in good stead to become the home chef you want to be. Here are some of my top tips or hacks for a successful and happy kitchen life:
First up – knives, you can never substitute good, sharp knives as an essential in your kitchen. Never spend your hard-earned savings on expensive knives and always try them for comfortable grip before purchasing. You do not need a huge set of them (a mistake many people make), as you will find after a while that you have not actually used some of them – ever!
Really and honestly, this is your starter kit and you can add to it with boning knives, filleting knives etc, when you want to move on with your skills.
Moving on, and depending on the size of your kitchen (and cupboards), I would recommend the following:
I teach children of school age to cook. I have one thing that I permanently remind them of – ‘taste, taste, taste’. It is the only way that your recipe will turn out as you want it to!
Pickling and fermenting could be the answer to your store cupboard prayers, if certain foods become short in the winter months, or a virus such as COVID-19 prevents us from getting our regular stock.
You can make delicious pickles to accompany a cold feast of cheese and meats, with some lovely warm bread. In terms of fermentation, there is a huge health factor that makes fermented food an ideal addition to your diet. With the meteoric rise in popularity, fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, kefir and a multitude of other probiotic additions to improve your gut health, appear on supermarket shelves with abundance. Many people do not realise that sauerkraut, for instance, is one of the ‘in vogue’ foods, with sales increasing at least ten-fold over the past year.
So rather than wasting the glut of vegetables you may have in autumn/winter, make use of them to create some healthy foods! Even small children (such as my grandson) love pickles, particularly the combination of sweet, sour and salty elements — they are not so keen on the bitter! Most children these days also like aromatics and spices, so introduce some to your pickling.
To be fair, the first time anyone tries pickled or fermented vegetables, the reaction is often a shudder, or a grimace. However, the second time and onwards usually produces a miraculous result, and then, they just cannot get enough to wolf down!
Fermentation is more of an acquired taste and can sound quite horrific at the thought of leaving vegetables for a long period of time before eating them, so just don’t tell anyone how they are made until they have finished eating the last morsel on their plates.
Find this Spicy vegan Beetroot soup recipe here!
Pickling must be done using an acid, such as vinegar or acetic acid, in order to preserve the produce. Produce should be left for at least five days before consuming, but once opened, you can store in the fridge for around two months. After that, whilst edible, they lose a certain element of ‘crunch,’ which is part of the joy of eating them!
Fermentation must include a combination of acid and microbes, otherwise it simply does not work. Successful fermentation can take 3-4 weeks — you can store it in a cold cupboard, basement or garage.
You can use fruit in pickling (like a nice apple chutney) but fermented fruit is not recommended, as it can take on a strange taste.
Best produce to pickle:
You can pickle most fruits and vegetables, such as:
Fermented drinks are a great addition to a plant-based diet, as they introduce live bacteria to your gut and keep it in balance.
My top three suggestions are:
How to store homemade produce
Pickles can be stored in your cupboard until they are opened. Once opened, it is best to refrigerate them.
Fermented vegetables or fruit can simply be covered with a cloth, and kept in a place where the temperature is between 8-12°C.
Do try some home pickling and fermenting. It’s good for your health and at least you know there are no hidden ‘nasties’ sometimes found in shop bought products.
My love affair with lavender probably started around the time I was nine years old and used to spend weeks and weeks during spring and summer holidays at my maternal grandmother’s house in Provence. Little did I know that in those early years, just how privileged I was, and what wonderful, lasting memories that this would provide me with forever. I also learnt that lavender was not just something you put in cupboards to make them smell good, but that as an addition to food, it was invaluable.
Having said this, I was introduced to all the flavours and aromas of Provence, and my culinary career in the early days, as a chef, was very much based on this. The lavender season is quite short, probably only around 2 months between June and August. It really does depend on climate and particularly rainfall.
For me, as a pint-sized little girl, their home and ‘estate’ (I use that word sparingly!), seemed huge. As well as lavender fields, there was the most fragrant herb garden, stretching as far as I could see. We grew rosemary, thyme, marjoram, coriander (not so much), basil, sage and mint – an absolute floral bouquet whose scent could be inhaled five minutes before you arrived at home. If ever there was an introduction to Provençale living, this was it in bucket loads.
My grandparents were rich with some of the finest qualities in life – good, fresh food, homemade produce and an atmosphere that made your heart sing. What they could not produce themselves, they exchanged with other families close by, almost like a co-operative – our tables were always full, as were our stomachs. Our social life was never quiet, there was always something going on every day, with people coming and going, meat and fish coming in one door, and herbs, vegetables and fruit going out the other door! Every day was a veritable feast of enjoyment – not just food, but families and characters, some of whom I still know to this day.
One lady, Madame Fouret, grew apricots in abundance, and every week apricot tarts would appear, with crisp sweet pastry and glazed with jam. When apricots were more scarce, she would use apples for ‘tarte tatin’ – how I loved the smell of both of them! Her reward for these would be our home-grown lavender, which was my first experience of tasting it – bread, cakes, lavender sugar and syrup were also what she would return to our home with regularity.
I so looked forward to her visits – not just for her delicacies, but her son, Christian – probably my first flush of teenage love! Both Monsieur Fouret, her husband, and Christian worked around the estate and would be there for our communal lunch, along with a multitude of other workers, chattering at the top of their voices. Christian was allowed wine, and I was allowed a little now and again, watered down! How I loved those long lunches, with tables covered in bread, cheeses, home-cured meats, olives and salads (it took me a while to enjoy the taste of artichokes, however!). Nobody other than my grandmother was allowed to produce the ‘soupe du jour’, which could be anything from the cupboards and vegetable and herb store that was available. This was my first experience of peeling, chopping and other skills that would stand me in good stead for the future – I absolutely loved it. I couldn’t lift the vast cooking pots that were on the stove, empty or full of delicious soup, until I was about 12 years old, but my grandmother used to lift them with so much ease, and she was just shy of 5 feet tall!
Ready for a taste of Provence?
Market days were a source of great excitement for me, getting up early in the Provence sunshine, loading up the truck (Christian was there, so that was always more beneficial) and driving the 15 minutes into the nearest village. We would sell whatever we had, from fresh herbs to dried herbs, goats’ cheese, jarred pickles, marinated pickles and sometimes terrines and pates – whatever my grandmother had time to make. It was always busy – sometimes we would sell out of almost everything, and come home (via a hot chocolate, croissant or similar sweet pastry) to finish off the repast for lunch. Even better, the market traders got to know me well and would always bring a little treat for ‘la petite anglaise’ (little English girl).
One of the most popular recipes my grandmother used to make was ‘soupe au pistou’. This was a rustic but full of flavour soup, and not by any means as traditional as some of the soups described today. But for me, it has a lasting flavour on my taste buds, and I still make it today (link to recipe).
I do hope this article has made you want to go to the Provence region; you will never regret it. Eat with the locals where possible and taste the true flavours of the area.
I was very fortunate a couple of years ago to be invited on a trip to Zanzibar, or ‘Spice Island’ as many visitors call it. As a food writer and journalist, you take every opportunity to expand your knowledge of what food, exotic spices, and culinary wonders that any country can offer you.
Zanzibar is part of the Tanzanian Archipelago, and as such, its gastronomy is a mix of African and Indian, but there is a smattering of European influence, particularly Italian. The capital is Stone Town, a vibrant market town where shops and street traders have an amazing array of spices, vegetables and fruit – some of which I was new to. There is also a plentiful supply of game fish, some so large you wouldn’t believe your eyes! You can avail yourself of bonito, swordfish, marlin, but you won’t find anything that relates to old fashioned fish and chips!
Residents are mainly of the Islamic religion, so cuisine tends to be heavily based on vegetarian foods, but the addition of spices really brings the dishes to life. ‘Spice for Life’ is my motto!
For the best selection, you need to go to Stone Town where the array is far larger than some of the smaller markets dotted around the island. Spices were originally introduced into Zanzibar by Portuguese traders who had ventured to India and the Americas, intrepidly increasing their market. They can now be found widely grown on the island, and you can visit ‘shambas’ (spice farms) to really see, taste and smell the depth of the produce found.
Expect to experience spices such as pepper, cardamom, vanilla, turmeric, cumin, nutmeg, lemongrass, cinnamon and coriander – coupled with fruits such as papaya, coconut, jackfruit (great for a vegetarian burger), cassava and the ever-present oranges. If you take an official tour, you will be treated to a delicious lunch and a taste experience of how to use the different spices. It’s well worthwhile and delicious at the same time.
But the best experience of all, and totally unforgettable, was taking a cookery class with two delightful Zanzibar ‘housewives’ – personally, having always cooked both professionally and at home using loads and loads of spices, a revelation occurred during the class!
Does turmeric whet your appetite?
The first thing that springs to mind is how spoilt we are in the Western world. Most of us are able to afford labour-saving kitchen gadgets to make our lives easier. Not so here – I must have lost pounds in weight with the effort of making everything by hand! But, I have to say, if you make that effort, the flavours really sing and can be a lot more potent than putting them in a blender or spice grinder. You release so much more flavour from the oils contained.
Our venue was the Mtoni Palace ruins, one of the historical sites on the island. There was no real ‘kitchen’, we cooked in the grounds of the ruin – a startingly new experience for me. No cooker as such, just some charcoal burners placed on the floor. We ground cumin, coriander seeds and crushed lemongrass and turmeric, enough to feed everyone there – and there must have been around 15 people including giggling Swahili watchers and guides. They seemed to find me amusing!
We made a huge pot of Coconut, Sweet Potato and Lemongrass soup and a Fish Curry (The fish was somewhat indiscernible…). Everything seemed to start with onions and garlic, but that’s ok, I love them both. What I couldn’t quite understand was the length of time everything was cooked for – must have been a couple of hours. Behind us, was a huge basket of fresh limes, which were used to finish off both dishes.
Despite the absence of modern equipment – the flavour of the dishes was absolutely incredible. Our hosts made the accompanying sesame bread. I found myself mopping up the soup and the curry sauce until I thought my tummy would explode!
The next day my hands and wrists were aching from the effort, so a leisurely stroll through the market to buy souvenirs and sit down for another Zanzibar lunch that I didn’t have to cook, was most enjoyable.
Zanzibar and its people taught me that using whole spices and making an effort to grind them down, was infinitely better than powdered, packaged spice. I am sure that once you get used to it, your hands do stop aching.