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Onions and shallots are closely related but have several key differences in appearance, taste, and popularity. To be honest, I love them both, but there are times where certain dishes will taste better is using the ‘right onion’.

They are both part of the ‘allium’ group, which also includes garlic, chives and leeks, but just because they are the same family, it doesn’t mean you can use them in the same way, or substitute one for another. Certain dishes just will not taste anywhere near what they should, if you swap flavours. There can be certain exceptions, and an ‘oniony taste’ where it’s needed is better than none at all!

If you are anything like me, you always have onions whether red, white or brown, they will sit happily in a dark place, shedding their skin all over my cupboard floor! Shallots – not so, I only buy them when I need them (expensive, go ‘off’ faster) and not as useable in every dish. They have a white and purplish hue to them and tend to grow in clusters, whilst onions love to go it alone during growth. Shallots do make an appearance, usually when I am showing off at a dinner party!

Onions vs Shallots and their differences

Other than the appearance and taste of these two bulbous additions to your food can be very different.

Shallots have a mild, somewhat sweet flavour, whilst the sharper, pungent taste of onions is much more discernible. Having said that, red and white onions do tend to be less eye-watering, and a little sweeter than their brown counterparts.

Just to confuse everyone, in the UK we have ‘spring onions’ which in other countries are called ‘scallions’ – these should only ever be used in salads, not for cooking. If you are not sure what I am talking about, they tend to have small bulbs (white) and long green stems when fresh and not chopped to size. The white part where it is beginning to turn to green can be used, but not much further along the stem. However, I sometimes use part of the stem as well as the white bulb for potato salad, or when I need chives and have run out! Finely chopped, they are a good substitute for garnish as well.

When I was on an assignment in both the Southern US and Mexico, they used to throw spring onions on their grills or barbecues. The smell was wonderful, but they appeared a little too ‘charred’ for my taste! Talking of charring and burning, it’s become a ‘chef fad’ here! Popular way is to char round the edges of an onion petal, or use burnt onion ash in food. I like to stay up with trends, but……?

In researching this article for a little more interesting facts, I discovered that shallots are far more nutritious than onions – must admit this surprised me a little, even though I am a qualified nutritionist. Vitamins and minerals such as B6 and fibre are much higher in shallots, and these are two important components contributing to your overall health.

Best ways to use onions or shallots

Brown (yellow) onions:

Red Onions:

Their sweetness goes better in raw dishes, but also popular in burgers.

White onions:

Shallots:

As you can see, all these varieties have a ‘raison d’etre’, with brown onions being the most versatile. In a good supermarket or market, you can see so many variations of onions, shallots etc, it’s so enticing.

In the UK, we had a period of time when the ‘Onion Johnnies’ used to appear every couple of weeks and go door to door! Unfortunately, they ceased to appear, probably due to economic reasons. How I miss their delicious Roscoff onions!

I would love to know if they still visit any part of the UK, so if they do, please let us know!

Who would have thought that those hard and hairy nuts on a palm tree could be so delicious and so versatile? Whilst they don’t grow naturally in Europe, there is always a plentiful supply of imports from the warmer countries to remind us of beautiful beaches, swinging palms, and still, calm waters. Take me there, please!

If you don’t feel like fighting with a coconut shell, there are plenty of variations of coconut that have been readily prepared for you. But I still like the challenge, and even more, I love the cocktails and mocktails you can drink straight out of a shell from a lovely, smiling bartender…

Why does fresh coconut taste different from any packaged version?

Fresh coconut is not very sweet, nor pungent – in fact, some people say that it is quite bland. It’s merely that processed coconut has an element of sugar added somewhere during the manufacturing process. It’s convenient if you want to add say, desiccated coconut to a recipe for baking cakes or crunchy bars – but not in mainstream cooking, such as Thai soups or curries. If you taste coconut milk for instance, straight from the tin, you think it would be sweet and creamy – but of course, it’s not. Creamed coconut is slightly sweeter, but it’s nuttier and has a slight aftertaste.

Ever tried coconut water? Again, people assume that the liquid inside a coconut will be white, thick and creamy, not like water. But it looks like slightly cloudy water and doesn’t really taste of much at all. Mind you, if you add a drop of white rum and drink it straight from the shell (through a straw of course), whilst lazing on a Caribbean beach, it takes on a whole new persona. Add some pineapple or other fruit and it tastes really yum. For the sweet tooth, don’t reach for the sugar, just add a small drop of vanilla.

Most packaged variations of coconut taste nothing like the real thing, but that’s probably wise as manufacturers would have a very small target audience.

Is coconut good for you?

Yes, but like most things, moderation is the key. Coconut is a great alternative to dairy milk for vegans and vegetarians and is often used in those wanting to achieve some level of weight loss. However, too much can have a reverse effect as it is packed with carbohydrate and fats, so it’s wise to be extremely active if you want to go the route of including coconut in your diet.

There appear to be scientific results stating that it lowers cholesterol, benefits the heart and increases insulin sensitivity, potentially beneficial to diabetics. One beneficial factor for everyone is its antioxidant content, enough to battle off infections, colds and other illnesses. All in all, it could easily be part of your weekly diet (in moderation) with a leaning towards a multitude of benefits.

Some ideas for using coconut milk

If you like Indian or Thai/Malaysian dishes, it is inevitable that you would have had coconut milk at some time. Tom Kha is one of my favourite Thai soups. If you are in a restaurant eating a spicy Far Eastern dish, accompany it with a ‘coconut lassi’ to take away a little heat from your palate.

But think about using it on other occasions:

I found that if I ever have a tummy that is unsettled, making some Tom Kha (without too much chilli, that can have a negative effect!) really helps to calm it down. Apparently (but I wouldn’t know as I don’t drink alcohol), coconut milk or water is fantastic for a hangover, but don’t let this be the first time you try it as a drink!

Finally, just to bust the myth – coconut is not a nut, it is not really a fruit, it comes under the category of a ‘drupe’. So, bet you didn’t know that!

There is nothing quite like a picnic out in the fresh air, on the beach or a lovely ‘green space’ in the countryside, kids and dogs in tow! Not only that, but with the best part of two years being cooped up, we get to go out and stretch our legs and do our mental health the world of good. Green spaces in particular, are known to improve mental health.

You could be the kind of person who is a ‘throw it all in the car and get on with it’ type. Or you could be mega-organised. Whichever floats your boat, but from my perspective, and usually with a horde of us in convoy, it pays to organise everything beforehand. I’m not saying make it like a military manoeuvre, but spend that little bit of time to avoid leaving anything behind that you need.

Top tips for successful picnics

These are my hot tips to get your food to your chosen destination safely and still tasting good!

  1. Packing sensibly to avoid a jumble sale in your boot will help all your items get there in good condition. If you are ‘sit on a blanket’ family or friends, use the blanket to cushion anything in danger of getting broken or squashed. If you are taking chairs, try to form a little enclosure around the food containers, to protect them. Take chairs though, only if you really need them or your mode of transport is the size of a campervan.
  2. Don’t make platters or bowls of salads, put your salads in jars. If you are using dressing, put the dressing in the bottom of the jar, and shake it up when you get there. This will stop any soggy messes.
  3. Likewise, any dips should be in safe containers. Its amazing how much a dip can bring any of your nibbles up to speed.
  4. If you picnic a lot, arm yourself with strong, unbreakable crockery and cutlery. Paper plates just don’t crack it and you end up with a lap full of food. Plus you can wash it and use it again and it cuts down on unnecessary waste disposal.
  5. Remember to bring some waste bags and hand wipes. If there is nowhere suitable to dispose of any rubbish, do take it home with you and avoid littering the countryside or beach.
  6. Invest in flasks that can be used either for hot or cold drinks. They are worth their weight in gold and will last you for years and years.
  7. Unreliable weather is always a problem. Make sure you have some umbrellas or parasols. You don’t want to get soaked to the skin, but equally so, burnt to a cinder. Have a strong factor sun cream for the kiddies and those with fair skin. Something for insect bites is a good idea too. You don’t have to be a walking pharmacist, but a few precautions can make or break a picnic.
  8. Take some items for a bit of simple fun, that do not take up too much space. Bats, balls, music anything that you enjoy. If you plan on swimming, remember all that stuff too, along with some extra clothes for the children if they get messy! This trip may only be for a day, but a lot can happen!

Most importantly – the food!

You can choose which way you go with the food – simple and ‘fingers’ or a little more substantial. Just don’t be up all night preparing, you want to enjoy yourself too and not be worn out before you start the day. You won’t be letting the side down if you take finger ‘nibbles’ for the little ones that you have bought in the supermarket. On a picnic, the last thing they are worried about is the food, they are more interested in letting loose.

For older children and adults, one of the most successful things I have found is the ‘pan bagnat’. Versatile and tasty, these loaves or baguettes stuffed with a huge selection of items can be filling and delicious. You can use anything – different meats, tuna, hard boiled eggs, sweet sliced tomatoes, marinated peppers, olives – you name it. Slice the bread up when you have stuffed it full of yum, wrap each piece in greaseproof paper and what looks great – tie up with string. We can thank our French friends for this one. Add some jars of salads to jazz it up a little, trust me, it works.

Keep your desserts simple. Fresh fruit salads rather than very creamy desserts that will attract the local insect population for a long time after you have eaten. If there is an ice cream van nearby, by all means indulge and leave the insects to the van driver. You could also make a tray bake a day or so before, slice into pieces whilst still in the tray, and wrap the whole thing up to take with you. Just don’t ice it – too much sugar icing (you could have a drizzle instead) and the flying beasts will rapidly appear.

By all means have some packets of snacks like crisps, potato chips or snack bars, just in case you get the chorus of ‘I’m hungry’ on the way home.

Most importantly, we don’t want a stressed out host or hostess. Picnics are all about being together and having fun. Food is of course very important, and a little effort or a twist here and there will make a difference.

Enjoy!

Of course, you can go into any shop at any time of the year and see asparagus on the shelves, but if you want homegrown and more flavour – stick to the season.

Seasonality varies depending on where you are – in some parts of Europe, depending on climatic conditions in your real provenance area, asparagus has a very short season. In the UK, the phrase is related to specific times of the year, the season-opening of which is St. Georges’s Day (April 23rd) and the closure is ‘when the solstice has gone, then so has the asparagus’ – honestly. So 2lst June folks – my sense of humour makes me imagine lots of bunches of asparagus, marching army-style down the road and then jumping off a cliff to their death!| Seems a bit like mumbo-jumbo to me, but it is right, more or less.

In mainland Europe however, seasons can be longer, lasting over 3 months as opposed to our eight weeks in the UK. The US (as usual) can obtain asparagus most times of the year. It may be from somewhere 2,000 miles away from your home town, but it’s still American!

Considering that asparagus started its long journey a thousand years ago, trotting its way from China across to Egypt and the Middle East, followed by the Mediterranean and finally Northern Europe in the early 16th Century, it sure has some stamina!

How many types of asparagus are there?

Essentially there are 3, green, white and purple. However, within those are some sub-species with varying names depending on where you are. Green is the common one, purple a little less so, and white is the prized ‘difficult to get hold of’ variety. When I lived in the South of France, people clamoured and queued when the word was out that there would be white asparagus at market that day, the start of the season! Fortunately, as chef at a very busy restaurant, the beaten up farmers truck would arrive, loaded to the gunnels, for me to pick the best of the bunches at 5am!

I’ve never tried asparagus, what does it taste like?

Words I have heard are ‘grassy’ and ‘earthy’. Well, I would rather chow down on asparagus than my back lawn..it would be good to know what our readers think of the taste.


soup_asparagus_shrimp_bisque

Photo: Simply Souperlicious/C.Moncel

Try this Asparagus bisque recipe here!

How do I choose my asparagus?

This is an FAQ. Personally, I would always opt for farmers markets or farms themselves if they sell it direct to the public, or let you loose on cutting your own (I have known farmers stick to you like glue as you try to cut, wielding a machete-style sharp implement – I think they would use it on you if you cut it wrongly!)

Whichever way you go, take time to check out your asparagus. Firstly, check out for bugs as it’s a sure sign if there are bugs when you buy, then the bunches partied with bugs whilst growing. That’s a no-no. Make sure the stems are firm but flexible, and the colour is a vibrant green (unless you are buying white of course!). The buds should be intact as well. When you get home, wash the produce again, flick off any excess water and store in a plastic bag in the fridge. Don’t use a ziplock, or anything airtight, as the asparagus will deteriorate far faster.

Can I freeze asparagus?

Indeed you can, and most people don’t really realise that. Freezing is simple – you can blanch and freeze or just use the same method that you use for storing in the fridge. It works. If you buy your asparagus with a rubber band for bunching, take off the band before freezing.

I don’t cook a lot with asparagus, any new ideas?

As a chef, we always found something new to add to our menu. You can’t really make an asparagus trifle or a birthday cake, but you can serve it with a flavoursome sweetish sauce, something like Roasted Asparagus with Ginger, Honey and Soy dressing – it’s delicious and a great mix of cuisines – I guess you could call it Pan-Asian.

You can make muffins or similar with parmesan and crispy bacon, obviously not sweet but a leaning towards ‘cakey’ fillings. Or you could make scones with chopped asparagus and marinated strawberries, which really are fabulous. Another idea which a friend introduced me to is Honey Fig and Asparagus tart with a creamy egg filling, which again is pretty yummy. Create your own ideas, you never know you may end up with an award-winning recipe!

But most of the Michelin-starred boys and girls are keeping it simple this year (if Michelin food is ever simple), sticking to a lot of grilled asparagus but making the speciality the actual sauce or the way it is served. Some are even fermenting it and serving with spiced vinegar, or making infusions of oil and thyme (had that one, its delicious). But my favourite of all is Fran Agudo from Tickets in Barcelona. He cooks white asparagus inside a salty meringue in the oven, then tops with Laurentia and sea grapes. Sounds complicated? – never say never until you try!

Dare I say – don’t forget delicious asparagus soup, a huge favourite of Queen Victoria when she held state banquets and of course, everyone at Simply Souperlicious!

Ahh, strawberries – bundles of red fruity joy, mouthwateringly sweet and so versatile. I could live on strawberries alone, such is my passion for them.

I grew up in a ‘fruit and veg’ family, with all the menfolk working for years in wholesale produce. In my young days, you couldn’t walk into a supermarket or greengrocer and buy strawberries 365 days of the year, only during a very short season lasting between 6-8 weeks. There are no imports, no greenhouse-produced, just pure, unadulterated strawbs out in the air.

Eating strawberries as a child

As a child, I knew they appeared in the summer, around early June, and I would ask my father every day if they were ‘here’ yet. After days and days of saying no, the great day would arrive and he would come home with a car full of them in little wooden crates, ready for our hungry eyes and tummies to devour them. We would eat them until we were all but sick, honestly. When they started to go mushy, mum and granny would make them into delicious jams and other preserves, but that was after shortcakes, cakes, and other delights. Then, guess what? The next carload would arrive and we would start the procedure all over again!

The main growers of strawberries all those years ago were all situated in Kent in South East England. Kent is known as ‘The Garden of England’, with its prolific landscape bestowed with orchards for all types of fruit, but also hops, which makes Kent well known in the brewing industry. Everything seems to grow so well in this county and still does today, but unfortunately, due to the influx of imports on a grand scale, Kent strawberries may have become not so special – however, I know a real strawb when I see it, and nothing can replace that sweet and delicious morsel I have been eating for many years.


recipe-melon-strawberry-soup

Try this  Strawberry and Melon Fruit soup recipe here!


Some great facts on strawberries

I hate to disappoint you all, but strawberries are not a fruit – they are an ‘accessory fruit’, but that doesn’t mean you carry them around like a handbag or a red scarf. I am not overly sure what it means! Some boffin is trying to tell me that it means it’s a ‘false fruit’ or a ‘pseudo fruit’ and that ‘it’s a fruit in which some of the flesh is derived not from the ovary but from some adjacent tissue exterior to the carpel.’ I bet this guy has never eaten a strawb in his life, otherwise, he/she would know that it IS a fruit in my book. Strawbs have been here for thousands of years all over the world, so don’t tell me it’s not a fruit!

The Chinese don’t doubt it. The Romans believed them to have magical, medicinal properties and the American nation was among the first in the modern-day world to eat them. It is even more proof that they are berries, fruits, or whatever, but not accessories. Strawberries are grown in every state in the US, and every province in Canada, such to the population’s desire for our tasty friends. There is a dedicated museum for strawberries in Belgium – yes, the whole world loves them.

But the people of Delaware, USA, have got it to spot on. In May, every year (21st – 27th this year) it’s Strawberry Week. I don’t know about it than anyone else, but I am applying for immigration straight away! I would have to come back in June every year though. The last 2 weeks, sometimes slipping into July is the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament, renowned throughout the world as the No.1 on the tennis calendar. The strawberries and cream terrace is packed all day with people eating my favourites, it’s almost a national institution to buy tickets for Wimbledon and eat their strawberries! It is estimated that over 2 million strawbs are consumed each year during those 14 days. I think I must have been responsible for a great deal of those the last time I visited the tournament, pre-Covid.

I think you have the gist of my article now, my ‘raison d’etre’ in the summer. Anything I can add to my blissful musing?  Ah yes, a large Pimms and Lemonade please, go heavy on the strawberries!

There was a great debate raging on Turnip vs Rutabega just a few weeks ago on Twitter.

Of course, I could further complicate and throw my oar into this by saying ‘and swede’, but for the purpose of this article, we will remain with the topic. I have just had a nudge from my colleague who tells me that in many countries they don’t even know what a swede is, other than a native of Sweden. Best to stay on the topic at hand! I was also going to mention parsnips – whoops another nudge to stay topical!

The Great Turnip and Rutabega Debate

They both come from the same family and genus, they are both round, they are both root vegetables, so what’s the big deal and do I really care? To be honest, I don’t, but for the sake of all those that spent copious hours on social media, let’s try to solve this problem.

Color and size make a difference

Tthe colours are different – with turnips being white and that lovely vibrant purple on the outside and with very white flesh, whilst rutabagas are not so attractive on the outside (dull beigey yellow and brown, but a lovely orangey-yellow flesh). The fact also that the rutabega is bigger and would win a fight would not exactly miss the attention. In this instance, size does matter, and as far as chefs are concerned the smaller the better on the turnip front, as they classify as ‘baby vegetables’, but more importantly for them, they are ‘I can make more money with mini veg’ category! My husband recently took me to a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, where we ordered turnips to the side for the princely sum of £9.50 (around $12.50 currently). The plate arrived with 3 of the smallest ever turnips each and my husband made a vow never to mention Gordon and turnip in the same sentence again!

via GIPHY

Taste makes a difference

Turnips have an earthy but pleasantly bitter kind of taste, like for instance a radish, whereas rutabegas are sweeter overall. You can eat the greens from both, but I find the turnip greens have more flavour as they are more tangy and peppery. I believe that they are popular in the Southern states of the US as an independent vegetable addition to a meal, but don’t see much of that in the UK other than in Caribbean restaurants who call them collard greens, which they do resemble when cooked.

Root vegetable versatility

Both are versatile, so to be honest, I really don’t know what the debate is all about; to me, it seems to be a ‘bit-of-a-waste-of-valuable-time’. There is plenty of good nutrition, including fibre and Vitamin C in both, but as rutabegas have a higher sugar and carb content, this is one of the reasons that they are sweeter, but not a potential diet item!

via GIPHY

Whilst both of these vegetables can be eaten in the same way, there are subtle differences and preferences to which one you include and where. For instance, turnips are fabulous when grated and eaten raw in a salad, or mixed with celeriac and radishes to make a different type of coleslaw. I make a dish called a winter slaw, which also has finely sliced red cabbage for flavour and colour. The slaw with these veg takes on a whole new profile, mainly caused by the turnip – delicious and slightly peppery, and far more savoury than your standard coleslaw.


Soup-Turnip-Potato-Microgreens

Try this Turnip and Microgreens soup recipe here!

Both are good if roasted, cooked and pureed, used in soups and stews – in fact, my winter soups and stews are never missing rutabegas for sure.

Farmers usually harvest turnips when they are small, whereas rutabagas are left to grow larger. When buying, make sure that they are both firm to grip and do store them properly to maintain their condition. Refrigeration is best for both in the crisper drawer at a humid setting, although you can store rutabagas in a cool dark storecupboard or similar, but they don’t stay as firm or maintain their standard for more than a week. 2 weeks in the fridge is best.

I have no idea if I have answered any of the questions, all I know is just create some great recipes, try some new ones and just enjoy!

We’re constantly advised to drink water regularly, whether by healthcare professionals, bloggers or even celebrities, with little explanation as to why. Water is often held up as a simple cure for all that ails us, but this is not due to a global aqua-specific conspiracy. It’s all true – clear fluids do benefit human health.

The Importance and Uses of Water

Most importantly, before going into why water is good for you, just a short sentence would cover it – ‘man can live without food for several weeks, but only 3 days without water’. Scary thought, so bear it in mind if water wastage comes easily to you. It’s also worth bearing in mind that excess water can also be a problem. The body can suffer ‘hyponatraemia’ – a situation where when too much is consumed, not only does it flush out impurities, but it also removes vital minerals at the same time, including essential ones such as salt and potassium.

The functions of water in the human being

Let’s start with the body. Some of the most significant benefits of water to the body are those we cannot see. Regularly sipping on clear fluids keeps the blood flowing around your body, delivering essential vitamins and nutrients to the heart and other internal organs. This all leads to a steady heart rate and healthy blood pressure levels.

What’s more, drinking water is akin to washing out our insides. Any bacteria that stubbornly clings to internal organs can be banished by hydrating. It’s hardly a secret that the more we drink, the more frequently we need to use the bathroom. That does not need to be a bad thing. Every trip will eradicate more unwelcome invaders from the body in the form of urine.

Drinking water is just as crucial to the mind as it is to the body. Much like water carries critical nutrients around the blood, it also helps the brain cells remain sharp and communicate with the rest of your bodg. 75% of the human brain is made of water, and we need to maintain this hydration level to keep our minds working to their greatest possible potential.

Many people complain of “brain fog” when the weather is too hot (or, let’s be honest, after a night of excessive alcohol intake!), finding it increasingly difficult to retain information or make decisions. This is because, when dehydrated, the brain lacks the appropriate lubrication to fire all synapses. Regularly sipping on room temperature water can rectify this. 

Drinking water will not just leave you feeling sharper in the moment – it can also play a role in alleviating the threat of anxiety and depression. We’re not saying that drinking water is a cure-all for any psychological concern. Always consult a healthcare professional if you are worried about your mental health. There is no denying that keeping hydrated enhances the brain’s chances of combatting these negative sensations, though. By remaining hydrated, the brain feels better equipped to process and negotiate challenging circumstances.

Best of all, plain tap water provides these benefits too. Unless it’s your preference to do so, there’s no need to pay a small fortune for bottled water. People choose to invest in mineral water for various reasons, from effective marketing to taste preference. Tap water is perfectly safe, though, and a one-time investment in a water filter or purifier will also provide the same taste sensation as bottled alternatives. 

If you consider the taste of water to be too plain for your palate, add a slice of fruit or squeeze in a little juice for some additional pizzazz. Try to keep this in mind next time you’re advised to consume eight glasses of water per day or switch your favourite fizzy pop for green tea.

Hydration really can make all the difference to your everyday health – both physically and mentally. Raise a glass with us, and let’s celebrate the importance of water to our wellbeing!

The uses of water in cooking

Without water, think of all the food you couldn’t prepare. Of course, soup is one of those! But it really starts from the raising of crops and animal life – without water, neither of those would survive. By feeding, both crops and animals produce well-textured and healthy food, and water, in general, will help in any cooking process. Boiling, steaming ‘sous vide’ cooking, poaching, braising and the making of many sauces and soups depend heavily on water, some more than others.

Let’s face it, you couldn’t even have a cup of tea or coffee without water, so what would we do all day! Do drink clear water whenever you can though and realise how lucky we are in the Western world, to have it available at the turn of a tap.

Celery has somewhat of a unique taste, so it is difficult to believe that it belongs to the same family as carrots and parsley! Parsley I can just about connect to with this pale, green, fibrous vegetable, as there is a certain similarity in the flavour. I know that some people don’t understand the hype surrounding celery, but it certainly tastes good and adds a depth of flavour to many dishes. Not only that, but it’s also pretty healthy.

Celery is comprised of 95 per cent water, and it is a perfect vegetable to use in casseroles, stews, soups etc. It is also useful to eat raw during hot summer months, or as an accompaniment to a delicious cheeseboard. Vitamins are also abound in celery, such as A, K and C, plus potassium, calcium and folate as the mineral content. It is a great vegetable for diabetics, as it is rated low on the glycaemic index. To add to all those benefits, it’s perfect as part of a calorie-controlled diet – only 6kcals per 80g (raw).

So what health benefits are there?

Celery has a good source of antioxidants, which has a protective effect on the cardiovascular system. It is also a useful aid to heart health, and for the production of red blood cells and the blood-clotting process.

Being a plentiful source of both soluble and insoluble fibre and anti-inflammatory properties, it could potentially support the digestive system and be a useful addition to the diet of those who fall foul to arthritis, joint pain etc. To be honest with you, I suffer flare ups of arthritis, and as I love celery and eat it in all ways, it appears to help lessen this problem.

Can everyone eat celery?

Now there’s a thing. Taking a look at what appears to be a fairly harmless, crunchy, thirst-quenching veggie, it is something that people can be sensitive or allergic to. Reactions can include an itchy mouth, tongue and throat, runny nose and possibly sneezing. If you think you have a cold coming on but have just eaten celery in the last few hours, think again. Reactions do tend to be on the mild side and not exactly life-threatening, just uncomfortable.

Does all celery taste the same?

Celery definitely tastes different from plant to plant. When buying celery be cautious – always buy a plant that has sturdy stalks, that are firm and upright (no flopping, its way past its best at that stage, although you can still use it in soups). Celery should snap easily when you try, but I wouldn’t suggest breaking all the celery stalks to test in the supermarket!

Leaves should be pale to brightish green, and make sure you cannot find any yellowing or brown patches on the plant. Once you unpack your shopping, celery should last between 5-7 days. Think about eating the leaves, they have a lovely peppery taste. If you are going to eat the leaves (I often chop mine through salad, as well as in casseroles), eat within 2 days as they do not store as well as the main stalks.

How to store celery

If you are going to use the refrigerator, keep the celery away from the back of the fridge – it is likely to go soft very quickly and may ice up. Do eat within the suggested time to enjoy all the nutritional benefits. Another tip is when you are going to use celery in a dish, chop it at the last minute, as even chopped a couple of hours before using will result in loss of valuable nutrition.

To recap, you can use celery in many ways – raw, steamed, baked (roasted), in soups, stews, casseroles. Also try it when you are making fresh juice or smoothies, or a vegetable stir fry.

Getting fussy kids to eat celery!

It’s a potential struggle to get kids to eat celery. However, there is one thing that I did that made my kids eat and enjoy it (other than hiding it in soup or similar!). They would help me make it, which was part of the fun, if not rather messy.

‘Ants on a Log’ was created by me around 40 years or so ago and is still going strong in this household (grandchildren now hooked on it). Dead simple, just cut the celery into pieces about 2 inches/5cm long, filled with their favourite cream cheese, and then sprinkle them with dried fruit, such as sultanas or apricots chopped up. It’s a hit around here anyway! You can also fill them with peanut butter as an alternative to the cream cheese. Give it a whirl!

When people first think about meatballs, rich tomato sauce and spaghetti spring to mind. But meatballs are so much more than that.

As usual, with many types of food, countries all over the world are claiming possession for inventing the not-so-humble meatball. Not only that, when is a meatball not a meatball? Natives of the Middle East claim that they developed the idea of savoury mince when they invented shish kebabs! Perhaps they are technically right…

To me a ball is a ball, meat or otherwise. I must confess, I am not a great fan of them, perhaps it’s the texture, who knows, or maybe I have never eaten a ‘decent’ meatball in my life. I thought of all the eateries I have worked in during my career and I have never even cooked meatballs!

Enough about that now- let’s look at how you can use meatballs in a variety of ways. Firstly though, remember you can make them by using a combination of meats, it doesn’t just need to be minced beef. A lot of people choose to mix meats such as pork and bacon together or make chicken meatballs with bacon. You can also change the level by using veal – it’s a very popular ingredients for meatballs. There is no set rule, it’s still a meatball. Finely chopped onions, celery or other vegetables can be added, and indeed, the best varieties always contain lots of herbs or spices. In countries such as Greece, Lebanon, Egypt and close vicinity, they would normally use heavily spiced lamb, just as they do in kebabs.

Different ways of cooking meatballs

Frying is probably the most common, just in a pan with some olive oil, browning them on the outside, then putting them in the oven to cook all the way through.


recipe_lionshead_cabbage_soup

Looking for inspiration for meatball soups?  Try this Lion’s Head soup recipe.


Braising is also popular. The Italians are fond of ‘slow-braising’ their meatballs in red wine and stock as this develops the flavour but keeps the meat moist and tasty. Initially they are fried, before the braising method is used.

Baking is an alternative method to use, before placing meatballs in a sauce. With baking, you can cook all the way through, without using the frying method first. Baking though, may toughen up the texture of the meat, as it is on a consistent warm/hot temperature throughout the cooking process.

Grilling is somewhat labour fuelled, in that you have to keep looking into the grill to see that they aren’t burning, and you have to turn them round a few times. You also must ensure that the meat in the middle is cooked through.

Steaming is popular in China of course. More than likely they use pork, and the soup is made with noodles and vegetables. The Chinese believe that soup is one of the healthiest meals to eat (they are probably right!). However, Tom Yum Soup, which can be made with chicken, is more than likely to be made with minced fish or prawns, shaped into balls. Fishballs anyone?

Cooking meatballs for soup

Becoming more popular now, meatball soup is something the Italians have been doing for a long time. Their meatball soup will often contain pieces of broken spaghetti or similar, so you don’t get completely away from pasta! Vegetables of course feature heavily in an Italian Meatball Soup, but the good thing is, if you have vegetarians on board, is that you can serve the veggie soup part without the meatballs first, then pop the meat in after frying or baking, to heat through into the soup. This method is often known as Italian Wedding Soup, which originated in the Calabria region.

Mistakes often made when making meatballs

  1. I would say that texture can be an issue. If the meatball is too wet, it will disintegrate when cooking, particularly in soups. If it is too dry, it will lose its flavour and potentially break off into pieces. Make sure you use the right amount of liquid or eggs for the mix to keep them moist, but equally so, enough breadcrumbs or flour to bind them adequately.
  2. Remember, you can never get enough seasoning, so don’t be gentle with it, and use spices and herbs with more or less gay abandon!
  3. Always use good quality meat – just because it’s a meatball, that doesn’t mean you can’t show it respect!
  4. Mix with your hands (if you don’t want to feel the meat, use gloves). Any other method just doesn’t crack it.
  5. Try to be adventurous – different accompaniments will go down well. Not just tomato sauce and pasta, you can serve them with any grain, such as couscous, rice bulghur wheat, or for veggies, spiralized carrots or courgettes (with vegballs!). A good old side salad doesn’t go amiss if serving on their own and think of making dips to go with them (I make a dip with yoghurt, lemon, pomegranate and chopped herbs).

Some other ways with meatballs include something like ‘bahn mi’ – a meatball torpedo roll, often served at Vietnamese street food stalls. Or you can thread the meatballs onto skewers, interspersed with onions, spring onions, lemongrass etc. Just give it a go, but don’t forget your soup!

 


recipe-vegan-italian-wedding-soup

Try this vegetarian Italian Wedding soup recipe.


I love food, as you know, but up there in my nirvana is my next best thing to do – ride horses, sleep with horses (cuddles, nothing else, but maybe a kiss on the nose) and generally be around them. I have a strange affinity with them, but anyone who rides with a passion knows what I mean. Same with dogs.

Combination time folks. Cook in the open with your horses grazing on the local plant life, taking a well-earned drink from a pretty, babbling stream, whilst you sit and savour the flavours of a freshly cooked dish straight off the plancha.

Planchas in Patagonia

I do like meat, but it’s not the be-all and end-all for me to chow down on, so if you are a vegetarian or vegan, plancha-life is not for you. But Patagonia still offers some delicious food ‘sans viande’, so visiting there is not a problem, as the scenery is amazing. Riding out is tough with such a terrain, so you can’t be fainthearted and you need a bit of stamina, for sure.

Ten years ago was the start of the wave of popularity of vegetarian dining, and restaurants all over Argentina (Patagonia is a region in the Argentine) now produce veggie and vegan tasty dishes. So, I thought, I am not going to be anywhere near a ‘sit down for hours with a great dish and a bottle of fabulous wine’ type restaurant, but I didn’t need to be. Patagonia, whilst off the beaten track, has an astonishing melange of vegetables and fruit, some of which I did not recognise in its raw form. I was surprised that my macho-gaucho guides were so up to date on the cooking front, particularly as they were all hardy ranching types who let their wives be the cooking kingpins. But not the case. Of course, they were dab hands at grilling meat on a barbecue or plancha (a barbecue style grill fuelled by coal, wood, not a turn on the gas type used in the garden), but their cooking prowess went a lot deeper, and perhaps I was stereotyping them a little too early on this assignment).

Eating at the Ranch

We started our trip on a ranch that would host only six of this kind of guest visits per year, just enough to top up their income. It was surprising to learn just how little they made from the livestock they raised for sale but considering a lot of meat is due for export, they are just the bottom of the chain and make the least of all.

After a hearty and welcoming meal at the ranch, I literally fell into my primitive bunk bed, so tiring had the trip been. We were due to set off at sunup, and I am a very short sleeper usually approaching my first day with enthusiasm and a thirst for what the day would bring. But this time I was so tired, and my bunk had become the best bed in the world, so I was loathe to leave it.

We trekked for almost the whole of the next day, way, way up in the mountains, stopping only once for a late lunch. The gauchos put up a plancha in record time, pulling equipment out of their saddle bags and food from a large, insulated container. I was a bit concerned as we (and the food) had been in the heat for hours, but no need, as the packs were still ice cold. We had lamb, crudely cut but deliciously sweet and tender with tons of grilled tomatoes and onions (they love onions and salads are normally packed with them). One of the wives had packed some empanadas and cheese from the previous night, which were also tossed on to the grill. I have to say it was damn good! Grilled provolone cheese, yum.

Packing up the horses, I was dreading the last stretch to our overnight stop, figuring I would fall asleep at the saddle! We took a leisurely trek for the last 3 hours and arrived hot and dusty as we took off at breakneck speed to what appeared to be a chocolate box house, all cute and quaint. Where the hell were we?!

Eating at the ‘Welsh house’

‘A Welsh house’ – in the middle of nowhere, being greeted in a very strange accent to which the gauchos responded! The menu that night (after we had showered and changed) carried on in the same theme – some Welsh food and some Patagonian delights. I guess you could call it Pata-Welsh fusion, giggle! More lamb, succulent beef, grilled aubergines, tomatoes, fresh salad leaves and some, wait for it, garlic prawns, giant beasts that the owners had marinated and were truly delicious. I would love to know where they got them from, but never did find out. Welsh is spoken across Patagonia, surprisingly. All over Patagonia there are little town with a strong well community, quite a diaspora when you think of it. Tea houses are very popular with the Patagonians.

Eating ‘Guanacos’

There was another meat on the plate, looked a little like a long fillet of beef.  This I did find out about after – ‘Guanacos’ are camelids native to South America, similar to the Andean llama. The population of guanacos in Patagonia is so large, that they can be hunted in a controlled manner for human consumption. Guanacos are the favourite prey for the Patagonian Puma, as well as for many travellers looking to try local Patagonia food dishes. I asked them if they have pumas around their land, and they smiled and they said apparently that as they had ‘guanacos’ there, they had pumas! Gulp. Oh well, I am supposed to be writing about what I ate and saw on my trip before I get devoured by the pumas as an English delicacy!

I thought I would sleep like the proverbial log, but my head was full of this somewhat bizarre world I was currently in, so decided to put it down on paper there and then.

We left in the morning at sunrise after a light breakfast and the guides asked us if we would mind riding through, stopping only for 10 or 15 minutes for a drink a and a bite to eat. We said yes, no problem, but daunted at the prospect. It wasn’t so bad, the trip back was a good 2 hours less, lunch was basic but to be served Welsh cakes on a mountainside in Patagonia was a first! They were wonderful as well.

Quick shower, and bed was the aim, but after more meat, this time in a stew served in a hollowed-out squash and packed full of meat, carrots, onions, Andean potatoes and green beans all with rice in too. Lovely, but too filling by then. I found out in the morning the name of the dish, ‘Cazuela de Llama’. Oh no, not another relative!

I needed the next few days off before we came home, and we decided to spend it whale and penguin watching down off the coast. It filled my heart with joy and Daniel got some great shots off the boat. He told me that the nights we slept back at the ranch he had decided to go out and photograph the animal nightlife and was thrilled with the photos he took. I guess you could say that we are both dedicated to our art, but we need to be, as some of our trips are arduous, but worth every minute.

Adios, till next time!

Too spicy for you? You can make a milder version; it all depends on what you put into the dish!

National Chili Day falls annually on the 4th Thursday in February and was originally started to celebrate Chili con Carne, usually made with beef, tomatoes and beans, but the recipe can vary according to where you are. Over the years people have added onions, peppers, corn – all sorts of ingredients subject to where they live and their personal tastes. The chili that was produced back in the 1800s was attributed to Mexican cuisine, but both Spanish and native Americans pat themselves on the back for inventing it as well.

Mentions of the dish in historical literature date back to the 1600s, but the first real verified entries were made by a man from Houston, Mr J C Clopper. He never used the word ‘chili’, but merely described it as something that poor San Antonio families ate as a stew with any type of meat and plenty of peppers, as meat was so scarce for them.

Whilst the Chinese and Indian nations have been serving food in markets and on the street from way, way back, it wasn’t until 1823 that chili stalls began to be set up by women, who were called ‘the chili queens’, and there on in the story of chili and its prevalence in the American diet really became known.

‘Chili joints and chili parlours’ as they were known, grew at a rapid rate through the 1900s, especially around the Roaring Twenties, often merely served in a roadside shack. Historians say that chili became the dish to eat during the Great Depression, providing sustenance and a way of staying alive. It was cheap, it was cheerful, and you got free crackers with it!

Some chili connoisseurs are advocates of venison as opposed to beef, one of the main worshippers being ex-President Lyndon B Johnson, who even has a chili named after his ranch in Texas. Chili is now known as the state dish of Texas!

Favourite Chili Recipes

As we said, every area, region or country has their own favourite version and, in the US, it is usually celebrated with competitions throughout many of the states, particularly in the south. The most notable names for chili dishes and those most favoured are:

Do you have a favourite recipe? If so, we would love to hear about it.

Some fun facts about chili

If you want to speed up your metabolic rate, eat chilis, extremely hot ones, as these set off a thermodynamic burn in the body and consequently burning up those dreaded calories.

There are about 4,000 varieties of chilis cultivated throughout the world! The Scoville Scale (named after its inventor) is a scale that measures the heat value and pungency of a chili, ranging from absolutely Atomic when it knocks your head off, to Zero, ‘very mild’ is the statement, but judging by my palate I would tend to disagree.

Get your mega-dose of Vitamin C. A green chili has as much Vitamin C as 6 oranges!

Cold feet – put some chili powder in your shoes to keep your feet warm, as some cultures do (honestly, no exaggeration).

The first ever chili cook-off competition was held in a small town in Texas in 1967. If there is one near you, give it a try!

A man in a small town in Texas ate 8 bowls of chili that were apparently off the Scoville scale at its highest point. Consequently he was given an award and later made a sheriff of the town for his fortitude!

Whether you like it hot or not, chili is here to stay in the American diet and throughout most of Europe.

 

 

Nobody said that this would be easy, but more and more of the world’s population are turning to a plant-based way of life. In fact, it is believed that 20 percent changed to vegetarian or vegan diets in January 2021, in spite of the limitations on fresh food experienced in Europe during Covid. It is anticipated that when statistics are produced, the percentage will be higher for 2022. Changing your diet is always difficult, but there are some useful tips and strategies to follow if you want to stick with it.

Why change to a plant-based diet?

There are multiple reasons for changing, both for nutritional or health benefits, or for ethics and keeping our planet a safe place to be.

Health and nutritional reasons are:

There are of course drawbacks, and you may need some natural supplementation for nutrients that may be missing from you diet.

Ethical reasons are profound. Vegetarianism and veganism will save water, believe it or not – it takes far more water to raise livestock that to grow plant life. Deforestation is drastically reduced as it takes an incredible amount of acreage to produce very little meat – 18 times more vegetables can be grown than meat produced. Our carbon footprint can be cut by 50%!

Tips to make your diet changes more seamless

There must be a certain amount of discipline in the process, but just think about all the good things you can eat and what good you are doing yourself and the rest of the world. It does spur you on. Get imaginative and creative, challenge yourself to make new dishes you haven’t tried before. Speak to friends and family about their recipes or ideas or invest in a good vegetarian/vegan cookbook that’s not too difficult to recreate.

Other great ideas are:

If you follow these tips, you have a good chance of changing. Never leave yourself hungry or not satiated, keep yourself happy with quantity and quality and you should not deviate from your plan for a new and healthier you. If you find it all too hard, don’t beat yourself up about it, at least you tried.

All soups have a personality, a different use in life – some are easy, and some are more complicated, so which soup suits you best? It doesn’t matter, it all goes into life’s big melting pot, literally.

Here we discuss the various types of soup that can be created to suit both your palate and your personality!

There are six main varieties of soup with different consistencies and different flavour profiles, so it doesn’t matter if your leaning is towards fish, meat or solely vegetables, they can all be ‘souperlicious’. Get soup-making in the winter certainly, although there are some delightful light summer soups to be made.

The six main categories of soup are:

Clear: Bouillon, broth and consommé

Clear soups are light, as they have nothing in them to thicken, but that doesn’t make them any less nutritious. They help to keep the digestive system clear, can be somewhat medicinal in their uses (hospitals often serve clear soups if a patient is struggling to eat), or if you feel unwell for any reason.

Broths and consommés are somewhat similar and often confused with bouillons. You can make a broth from almost anything such as chicken, beef and other meats, but also vegetables. A good mushroom broth is also popular. Simply put, they are a soup or the base for another dish, that is made from bones, vegetables, meat or fish simmered in water. Adding herbs can often elevate the broth, or in the case of Far Eastern cooking, herbs or additional flavourings such as lemongrass are frequently used.

It is wise to leave broth to simmer over a period of time to intensify the flavour, particularly if you are using meat or fish.


recipe_escalade_soup

Ready to make soup?
Find the Vegetable Broth soup recipe here!


The difference with a consommé is that it is usually made with ground meats and a mirepoix, which is a combination of vegetables such as carrots, onions and celery. Tomatoes are also added along with egg whites, and after a long period of simmering the mixture, impurities will rise to the surface (frequently called ‘scum’) and settle into a thick layer on the top. Once skimmed off completely, you should be left with a delightful golden colour, rich in nutrition. Pass this through a filter, and you are left with a clear fluid. Any extra fat globules can be skimmed off, should any be left in the clear liquid.

Thick:          Bisque, Cream, Potage

Depending on the texture and flavour you want from a thick soup, you can use corn starch, flour, cream, vegetables etc as a thickening agent. How thick the soup ends up is entirely up to you, but it shouldn’t be overwhelmingly tasting of flour, for instance.

A potage is more stew-like and wholesome, as meat and vegetables are left in chunks or pieces, as

French Potage Soup

Photo: SimplySouperlicious/C.Moncel

opposed to being blitzed to form a smooth soup. They are great winter warmers. ‘Potage’ is attributed to Northern France and has been around since the Medieval period and is indicative to the high level of poorer people – they would have a potage almost every day, and just keep topping up what was in the pot and adding grains, anything found, foraged, hunted or otherwise was thrown in and the whole process was ongoing. Let’s be honest, it was an unattractive mush, not quite like we would serve today!

Bisque – I have to say my thoughts always turn to seafood when I think about bisque, although these days vegetable variations are popular. Bisque should be thick and creamy, unctuous and the kind of dish you sit on the sofa with your favourite blanket in front of a roaring fire and watching a movie – that kind of comfort dish! Lobster and crab are my favourites – I get satisfaction from cooking off the shells of these tasty creatures and using the blitzed shells as a base. It’s delightfully ‘fishy’ and the aroma is amazing.

Some chefs use rice to thicken the dish, but others keep it simple and finish the soup with hot cream. For pure indulgence, some will also add a large piece of butter. The nearest thing to a bisque is probably a chowder, popular in the US particularly.

Cream Soups – just what they say really. Made from a fairly basic roux (white sauce) with milk or cream to loosen it, then combined with whatever you decide, be it chicken or vegetables, such as tomato, mushroom etc. Seasoning is important, otherwise it can be pretty bland, although it’s still better than pouring it out of a can!

Whatever is your bag, just do it – by hand or using a soup maker, it doesn’t matter, even though I prefer the hand method, it’s much more satisfying to make. Experimenting with soup-making can be a hobby, and a tasty one at that.


recipe-creamy-rocket-potato-soup

Ready to make soup?
Find the Creamy Rocket and Potato soup recipe here!


Ten years ago, one of my editors asked me to write about Hungarian food and the food scene. Hungary? Top class food? At the time, the only thing that sprung to mind was, well, goulash. I stand rebuked, sackcloth and ashes – I can only apologise to them.

Little did I know that at that time, the specific magazine I was freelancing for was just about to launch there, as food magazine sales had increased more than any other genre – an unbelievable 30%. I am glad I didn’t know that at the time, the pressure would have been too great for me to remain unbiased in my work. I need not have worried – I think I enjoyed every morsel of this experience, including the city itself.

Travel to Budapest

I am not sure what Budapest is like now, but I hear it has emerged even more and now has an amazing food scene, far more so than when I travelled there before, and even then, it was pretty darn good! It wasn’t so much the actual food; it was the all-encompassing ambiance of this beautiful place. You know what I mean – you can eat some fried chicken surrounded by an amazing scenic view, and it will be the best chicken you ever chomped on!

Budapest city itself is glorious with amazing architecture, some quirky small streets where you can find tucked away restaurants that belie their location as they are always enjoying a roaring trade at lunch and dinner. But the one experience that stayed in my mind ever since was gazing down at the city and the way the river, the mighty Danube, splits it in two – Buda and Pest. Quite different terrain, Buda is quite hilly, whilst Pest is rather flat. If you enjoy sightseeing, you are certainly spoilt for choice, with many ruins to visit and as mentioned, glorious architecture. I also had an ‘out of body’ thermal spa experience, one of the most ornate spas I have even been to. It was so relaxing; I can’t begin to tell you after footslogging around Budapest with an over-enthusiastic masochist of a guide!

Budapest Food Scene

The food scene was relatively untouched by other parts of our cosmos, and very few ‘fast food’ outlets at that time. Fast food was where you could go and pick up some great dishes that had been cooked for hours and relatively traditional, and boy, they were delicious. Goulash, or a form of this deep stew was available in most, and I have to say meat was prevalent then. Now in the city, vegetarians and vegans are much more widely catered for. Even with my background of working with many nationalities, I did not know anyone in this city, so had to rely on a guide – and did he like walking! But it did give me a better idea of the city and revealed some gastronomic treasures.

It wouldn’t be right not to experience goulash when in Budapest, would it? I found that in many places, goulash was served as a soup called ‘gulyas’ with thick slices of bread, and it’s a meal in one. Most dishes are served with a ‘side of paprika paste’ or paprika itself, making it a classic winter dish. The other dish served with copious amounts of bread was ‘lecso’ served as a stew with crispy and spicy sausages, oodles of paprika and some tender vegetables. I preferred this to the goulash if I am honest.

In some of the places that my guide took me there were quite a few students, so I asked him why – he said, ‘price and taste’, which actually was pretty obvious, but I must have been having a Homer Simpson moment. The dish I heard most of the youngsters ordering was ‘kolbasz’, another casual sausage dish served generally with bread to put the sausage in, along with spices, sauerkraut and a huge dollop of mustard! Reminded me of an extended version of a hot dog! These were consumed by the hundreds and thousands at breakfast, lunch and dinner and I guess were the staple diet of impoverished youth! Shame there weren’t any crispy onions though!

Most meat dishes were pork or beef, but I did find lamb on a couple of occasions, but this is normally reserved for families at special celebrations, so I was reliably informed. I am sure that situation will have been remedied by now though, as the food scene has expanded considerably to include Italian, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and of course, French restaurants. In fact, there is now a thriving section, a type of Chinatown in Budapest, which is apparently a ‘must’.

We did take a river cruise on my second evening and the view of Budapest by night took my breath away, with glittering lights shimmering on the water. It’s a must do, for sure. The boat we took was fairly cheap and cheerful, and I experienced a couple of local drinks (why, oh why did I do that?). It was a particularly chilly night, so wrapped up warm my guide suggested a Pálinka, apparently Hungary’s national fruit brandy, which is served in a variety of flavours — apricot, plum, pear — but what unifies them all is their uncanny ability to knock you off your feet before you know it. Heed my advice: Sip slowly and hold on to the boat rail as once the warmth of the drink has crept up on you, the only place to go after that is the floor! The only saving grace is as a token gesture we were able to have some pretzels, called ropi’, which were covered in salt, very crispy but tasty, but only served to make me incredibly thirsty! Never trust a guide is all I can say! What was I thinking – I don’t drink alcohol normally!

I hope this doesn’t all sound a ‘little shady’, but I am trying to show you the side of Budapest that I experienced, but it does have far more than I have space to write about. I did have a delicious Chicken Paprikash, very popular in Budapest and made in a sour cream sauce with oodles of…paprika, of course!

Hungarian Chocolate

However, as usual I must sneak chocolate into the equation! Now you have got me – some amazingly mouth-watering sweet snacks and cakes are sold by the million I would think as the nation do have a communal joint sweet tooth. I sampled some elegant pastries, and some not so elegant, but equally as tasty ones. I had Palacsinta, Hungary’s take on the crêpe, soft, thin pancakes with a variety of sweet fillings ranging anywhere from raspberry jam and sweet cottage cheese to chocolate and hazelnut goodness, like Nutella.

I brought back a huge bag full of Hungary’s favourite chocolate candy bar –Túró  Rudi’. This beloved túró-filled bar, coated in a brittle chocolate glaze, is Hungary’s national snack food. It contains a little less sugar than your average candy bar and locals would argue, tastes better, too. The office team descended on them like a pack of vultures. For those of you who don’t know, turo is a sweet curd cheese and almost a trademark in Hungary.

I did feel that I didn’t quite achieve what I wanted to on this trip, so have decided to go back under my own steam – some 10 years later, along with ‘the hubster’ (husband) and whoever else wants to join in. I want to try some of the trendy ruins bars, and much more of the expanded and multi-cultural food scene to really get an up to date flavour of Budapest.

There is one thing I would say though. The experience of eating somewhat heavy food is unlikely to change – it is still widely served in Budapest and still remains rib-sticking and highly calorific, even though exceptionally tasty. Avoid ‘langos’ if you don’t want to double your waistline (fried dough, with copious amounts of cheese and sour cream), which is served commonly as street food.

But the food scene is now vast, encompassing just about every cuisine you can think of, so I am told by many eager gastro friends and colleagues. Everything from Michelin star to coffee and pastries, French to Far Eastern, you can get it all here. I am off to check it out early in the New Year, with my winter woollies and definitely no Palinka!

Pepper pot soup is a most unassuming dish – in fact, you would think somebody just raided the bottom of their fridge or store cupboard and made something with what vegetables were left and looking a trifle sad. But that’s the beauty of the dish, it’s simple but wholesome and tasty, a little like our mantra at Simply Souperlicious.

Pepper Pot Soup Origins

Also known as Philadelphia Pepper Pot, this dish was brought to the area by people from Africa, the West Indies, and the Caribbean.  Colonial Black women served the dish in their homes, and also in the homes were they worked. They also served the soup at local markets. In fact, many culinary historians consider it to be an early street food.

Pepper Pot Soup and the American Revolutionary War

The depth of this dish evolves around its history back in the late 18th Century and the American Revolutionary War against the English. In those days, it became known as ‘the dish that won the war’, in spite of the cold and harsh winter that the soldiers were suffering, along with a dire shortage of food, things were looking tough. American farmers had left the area desolate and had sold their store of vegetables and any other foodstuffs to the English for cash.

By now you will have realised that this is truly an American dish, even though variations of it exist in many other countries – like most recipes, in fact. Needless to say, with such a dearth of ingredients, the cooks had their work cut out, so what wasn’t already there, they foraged for, in the hope of turning out a nutritious and filling dish. As the saying goes, ‘an army marches on its stomach’, and this was certainly the case.

I have to say, seeing the words National Pepper Pot Day, I instantly assumed that it would be some kind of pepper stew, using bell peppers, but there was a little bit more to it. I also had thoughts of Provencal style ratatouille, or a more pronounced Caribbean pepper dish, all kinds of ideas. I stand corrected!

Celebrated on December 29th every year, it’s all about food, no real events other than families getting together on a cold winter’s day and just being a family. With all the excesses of Christmas, a humble celebration like this is by far the best thing to do, bringing people close around a very historical and traditional occasion.

Of course, now any home cook can adapt the basic recipe to include what people enjoy (pretty sure it won’t include tripe like the original version did!). It had few basic ingredients back in 1779 and the Battle of Valley Forge – potatoes, onions and carrots were predominant, perhaps celery if they could find any, but they certainly wouldn’t have had stock or bouillon cubes to bring out the flavour! Scraps of meat or offal – I dread to think the condition that would be in, or what genus the animals were! They probably would have struggled to unearth a selection of herbs and spices, to zest it up – who really knows?

Intrigued by cuisine from all parts of the world, particularly food that has an origin in that particular country, and that also dates back several hundred years, sad as I am, I spent time at the local library, researching pepper pot soup (well, it keeps me out of mischief I suppose!). Food history for me is far more fascinating than studying the school syllabus of the various kings and queens and their battles – someone just tell me what they ate, and I will be happier! It was interesting to find how people had adapted the ‘original recipe’ to reflect today’s cuisine – are we really this spoilt? It no longer becomes a basic and humble soup, but more of a gastronomic event, with chefs using 20 ingredients – a far cry from 1779!

Anyway guys, wherever you are in the world, and whatever is happening around all of us, celebrate National Pepper Pot Day with your family and close friends. It really is your day in the US, or wherever you are living. Spice it up and make it with love!

Ooh, bouillabaisse – I dream of it, a really traditional rustic and lip-smackingly delicious bowl of fishy goodness. If I was a cat, I’d be licking my whiskers!

Make no mistake, it’s not for the fainthearted or occasional lover of fish, it tastes fishy, it smells (fresh) fishy, and you could end up with the occasional bone, fin, or other part of a fish’s anatomy – if you eat the very traditional version. After all, it was a dish created by fishermen for fishermen in the early days of its existence. It has been somewhat refined by chefs and restaurants however, to ensure that the best fillets are eaten, and there are no fish skeletons in your bowl, resembling those you may see in the odd cartoon!

Bouillabaisse Day

The 14th  of December is the day when you should get out your fish hat and start cooking, although the very best bouillabaisse is made over a two-day period. Fishermen in Marseilles cooked this dish by using rock fish, which they couldn’t sell at markets or to fishmongers as it was purportedly of poor quality. As usual, both individuals and countries lay claim to the dish, but the Provencal region has a strong hand on the situation and will never give this popular bowl away to pretenders! Frankly, let the French have it, from my experience I have always eaten bouillabaisse where I believe it belongs. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say the French invented it around 1800, and leave it at that!

So what delights are in this famous ‘soupy stew’? Before we go further, it’s not any old fish, it must be fresh and smelling of the sea. Any eyes must be bright, the flesh plump and firm, and the scales nice and shiny. Often, you won’t find fish like that in a supermarket. If you are lucky enough to live by the sea or a fresh fish market, don’t hesitate to go there for your produce, it’s the only way if you want an authentic-tasting dish.

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Photo: Kakub Kapusnak/Unsplash

Quite simply though, what genuinely makes a bouillabaisse so flavoursome is what you put in the pot with the fish. It’s important to inject some depth of flavour into the broth. There is no set rule for any of the ingredients, but there are some that should not be left out. My favourite recipe is by the well-renowned Julia Child, whom I adore as a chef and author, but that’s not to say you can’t deviate and include what you like to eat. Julia kept hers relatively simple, using some quaint sayings such as ‘ensure the broth is fortified with shells and trimmings!’ Who uses those terms today?!

Bouillabaisse: the Marseille Way

Probably the most noticeable ingredients in every recipe I have read are red and grey mullet, hake, monkfish, langoustines, spider crabs and mussels. Vegetables are usually leeks, onions, potatoes, celery, tomatoes and potentially the subtle flavour of fennel, although quite a few chefs now prefer to put the alcohol Pernod into the soup, to imitate the aniseed-style taste. Herbs are vitally important – those such as bay, thyme, parsley and saffron, stalks and all. Garlic of course, will appear somewhere, either in the soup or in the rouille that accompanies it.

I love the way it is served down in Marseille, having spent so much time there. I never went to a restaurant that just ladled it all into a bowl – the fish and the broth were brought to the table separately, and then put together in a separate bowl. This seemed the most popular, but I have also had it with the broth served first with the rouille and crusty bread, followed by the fish on a separate plate. I don’t mind either way to be honest, but there is something more ‘complete’ when it all comes together, and it certainly confuses foreign diners who aren’t aware of the alternative but traditional serving method! You can see them staring around the restaurant and you know their expression means ‘where’s the fish’?!

I have no further words of wisdom other than always make your own, or have it made freshly by someone who knows about it. Canned or otherwise just won’t crack it.

With almost two terrible years with the threat of Covid-19 perpetually in our minds, one of the saddest things was having to spend Christmas locked up with none of the usual get-togethers, visits out and generally celebrating this wonderful time of the year,

One of the loveliest things to do is get out and see all the decorations around, shop ‘til you drop and generally get into the Christmas spirit. Even if you were ‘Scrooge’ from the famous Dickens book, you cannot fail to be whisked along with the festivities. Even if you don’t see snow all year, everyone in the UK looks forward to it being a White Christmas.

Christmas in Salzburg

If somebody asked me about a memorable Christmas away from home, Salzburg always springs immediately to mind, particularly the warmth of the people and what Christmas means to them. If you have children, they will love it, with the row upon row of incredible decorations, lights and working models of Christmas trains, angels, nativity and characters from famous books, all appropriately dressed. Trying to describe the atmosphere is virtually impossible – and the delicious food smells from the one of the most famous Christmas markets in the world would simply make your mouth water.

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Photo: Jonathan Kemper/Unsplash

Let’s talk about the food (I can still smell the aromas after several years, let alone sausages sizzling on an open grill or the aromas of cinnamon and ginger coming from the cakes). Austria in general has some classics such as delicious coffee and glorious cakes. One of the oldest festive foods in Europe, you can’t visit Salzburg at Christmas without trying the local ‘lebkuchen’. Often called gingerbread in English, it’s actually a close relative to the namoura honey cake that can be traced back to ancient Egyptian times. Icy, sugary and sprinkled with almonds, beware of some of the messages written on them – they can be a little on the risqué side – my grandchildren found that hilarious! I don’t dare mention the doughnuts – that would send me straight into smacking my lips! If you are not keen on coffee, avail yourself of the numerous big bowls of punch (some free!) that attract you to many of the stalls.

Of course, I am talking about the multitude of cafes lining the streets, but the street food stalls can risk putting pounds on your ‘Christmas body’, believe me! One of the things that really springs to mind are – wait for it – sausages! I have never seen an array and choice of flavours like this, and I fail to describe the flavours and smell – I think the highest score for sausage munching was from my grandson! A lasting memory will always be a sausage in one hand, punch in the other and staring up at the incredible starry sky, just like thousands and thousands of brightly twinkling lights.

Salzburg Christmas Market

Salzburg’s Christmas Market dates as far back as the 15th century and is located at the foot of the Hohensalzburg fortress and around the venerable Cathedral of Salzburg. The cathedral itself is a stunning building and it really comes to life at this time of the year. On one side of the square choirs sing, but on the other side, there were brass bands playing, somewhat combatting each other! There were dancers dressed in traditional costume, all adding to the joy of spending 4 days of eating, drinking and shopping – what a way to go! You are very much encouraged to join in everything on offer, with an events programme consisting of concerts, storytelling for the children, Krampus parades, but the main attraction is definitely the stalls (or should I say traditional wooden huts which are beautifully decorated). You can also have a guided tour by horse and carriage or a Santa sleigh ride to show you the sights. You can buy decorations for your tree, wooden items with intricate carving, dolls and other toys such as Christmas trains and of course, food gifts to take back as presents. I brought back food gifts by the dozen (no shock there), including sausages, which the hotel packed in in an insulated ice container ready for the flight home. How thoughtful. I also bought some Christmas eggs, beautifully hand painted in bright colours, just be careful, as they can break easily.

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Photo: Polina Tankilevitch/Unsplash

We tried the obvious – Wiener Schnitzel, rated to be Austria’s top dish. I have to say it was the best piece of veal I have ever tasted, and there was something about the breadcrumb coating, absolutely delicious. The noodles were pretty good too and a change from the usual mashed potato I have had in the past. My husband tried the ‘Tafelspitz’, another traditional dish, and he declared it to be lovely. Its beef boiled in broth and accompanied by spices, including horseradish, and plenty of root vegetables. An interesting addition were the apples – never tried that in a stew type dish before – and they gave it a beautiful flavour that I will definitely experiment with in the future. Not sure on the cut of beef, but it was deliciously tender and moist, which tells me it was once ‘fatty’ but there was no trace of that at all. My grandson tried it as well and actually ate it all, saying it was lovely. I asked him why – and he said ‘it’s the apples’. Oh well, perhaps he will be more descriptive in the future!

It was a very memorable and lovely trip to Salzburg, albeit short and sweet. Must go again one year.

 

Ever bought spices on a whim and can’t remember what for?

Come on guys, open up that spice cupboard or rack and refresh your memory – why did you buy them, what were they for, and even better, how old are they?

Unlike certain food items and dare I say us humans, spices do not mature with age, they deteriorate and become a former shadow of themselves. Powdered or ground spices barely make it past a year, whereas whole spices will survive their dark existence for at least two, possibly three years. Spices will lose their aroma and certainly their flavour when unused for too long, but they will not make you ill, just disgruntled if your lovingly prepared meal doesn’t taste so loving. As spices age and are exposed to oxygen, their essential oils evaporate, consequently drying the spices out, so they become less vibrant. Once you open that lid or packet and humidity hits, this will undoubtedly ruin the flavour profile. Taste test – open the top and smell the spice – if it smells like a mere carbon copy of its former self, it will certainly taste like it! Only one thing to do, chuck it out.

Things to do with spices near their use by date

When you are having a spice spring clean, if you check the dates and find one almost ready to expire, use it up in these ways (we have chosen some spices that aren’t in all cupboards, but may have been something you bought for one particular recipe you made).

Caraway seeds are a good example. You may have purchased them to put in a cake or muffin, but they go equally well in cabbage dishes, sauerkraut, soups and stews. Try using them in pickling and brining and they also go together well with garlic and pork. If you’re following a recipe that calls for ground cumin, you can use caraway seeds as a replacement but only use half the amount requested. A delicious loaf straight from the oven benefits from caraway seeds, and the aroma in the house is sumptuous as the bread bakes. I always get a hint of aniseed when I taste caraway.

Sumac hit the headlines when Middle Eastern food really started to catch on in the UK and parts of Europe, but has been widely used throughout Asia and the Far East for many years. Its amazing deep red colour comes from the berries of the sumac bush, indigenous to the Middle East. It has a mild lemony taste and is fantastic in rice dishes such as pilaffs, and the Iranians use it as a simple condiment alongside salt and pepper! Add it wherever you use lemon or lime, spice up potato wedges with it, roast your chicken with it, then toss your roasted veg in with it! So versatile and can be used almost after expiry date for a subtle but amazing flavour. Pairs well with other herbs such as rosemary or thyme, or with garlic. Salads such as beans or chickpeas happily get into bed with sumac, as do fish, salad dressings and baked feta! An all round spoonful of taste and goodness.

Cardamom (green) You may have bought this at some stage to make an authentic Indian curry, but its versatility goes further. Cardamom features well in sweet dishes as well as savoury, but biscuits and buns are very common near Christmas time. One of the summer ‘raves’ was Cardamom Ice Cream. Put it in your plain custard or make a yummy chocolate torte with a touch of cardamom. It is wonderful in savoury dishes such as Indian butter chicken, but (and please note our Souper in Chief) it is also great in soups!

Chilli – a great deal of us will have chilli powder, dried chillies and fresh chillies in our stock and are guilty of letting them go to waste. Some like it blistering hot, whilst others just a more subtle hint (Mr Dean Moncel, please take note!). Use up any milder versions in ice creams, chocolate dishes (nothing like a hot chilli chocolate drink on a snowy, cold day), even use it as a chilli chocolate avocado mousse, really yummy. If you enjoy a blasting ‘make yourself sweat’ kind of chilli beef, dried chilli near use by date just won’t crack it! Got any chai going to waste? Try a chilli chai tea or coffee, or banana, chilli and chai pancakes to spice up your life!

With Covid still ‘out there’, there’s no better time to review how you prep your food when cooking, and what are safe hygiene practices in your kitchen.

Probably most of us think that we have adequate cleanliness in the kitchen, but just think about germs as our enemies, because they really are. These clever little devils take no prisoners and use the opportunity to multiply wherever they can. Statistics show that the majority of food poisonings come from the home, and how you prepare your foods has a big impact on your health. Following pretty basic rules, you can ensure that runny tummies or worse infection doesn’t occur nor spread.

Here are the basics to keep you healthy in the kitchen:

Clean and sanitize

When we were young, the older generation always said ‘wash your hands’ probably a hundred times a day. This principle applies whatever age you are and doesn’t mean a quick rinse under the cold-water tap. Foodborne illnesses are transferred rapidly if food is touched or prepared without cleanliness in mind. Cleaning your hands should be part of the whole prep and cook routine.

Keep your kitchen clean and sanitized, and importantly, keep any items you clean with, equally as clean. On old chef friend of mine used to say, ‘if in doubt, nuke it’. He is so right. Kitchen sponges and other items used for washing or drying, need to be ultra-clean or disposed of when they get mucky. If in doubt, throw it out should be your mantra.

Tip: If you really want to go overboard, microwave your sponge for 2 minutes on high. This is far safer than sanitizer or bleach cleaners. Nothing plastic though!

Keep organised and safe in the kitchen

Organising your cupboards, fridge and freezer will aid your cooking processes and keep you healthy at the same time. Knowing what you have in store and where you keep it will also stop over-buying and stocking.

For preparation of food, any surface you use obviously must be sanitized, but how many chopping boards do you use? Most households only have one or two but investing in a set of colour coded boards can prevent disease spreading, by avoiding cross-contamination between hot and cold, cooked and raw. This can occur mainly between raw and cooked foods. Colour coded boards, i.e., one for fish, one for meat, one for veg etc., will prevent one type of food transferring microbes to another. They aren’t massively expensive, so it would be sensible to spend your money on some

However, on to your fridge – a potential red flag zone. Food should be meticulously stored and sell by dates should be stuck to, even though impoverished students are usually guilty of eating out of date food! Be aware though, that out of date is not the same as ‘best before’ date. Foods marked ‘best before’ can still be eaten, as this denotes quality, rather than safety.

Without messing around, here are my ‘bullets’:

General Fridge Rules

Having worked in commercial kitchens for a great deal of my life, you may think I am being a little ‘over the top’ in my preparations, but believe me, it really is better to be safe than sorry, and most rules still apply. Sure thing, everyone breaks the rules, but just keep in mind that the consequences for your family can be pretty nasty.

Keeping your fridge clean, i.e., the body of it and the shelves and built-in containers, should be done once a week, or more if you have spillages. Keep any vents and the cooling unit clean as well.

I hope I haven’t bored you with my kitchen hygiene, but it really is wise to keep you and your family healthy. Some of it may seem obvious, but many people really do not practice safety in their kitchen environment. Keep safe and keep eating tasty and healthy food!

To be honest, I don’t really care what people think about potatoes – I love ‘em! Call them potatoes, ‘spuds’, ‘tatties’, whatever you like, they are probably the most useful and potentially tasty tubers on the planet. It’s up to you and how you cook them, even though nutritionists worldwide will throw their hands up in horror at the thought of their overuse.

Yes, I agree that they are packed full of the worst kind of carbohydrate – the evil one that is digested far too quickly through your system, but for many years some time ago, they were responsible for keeping members of large families alive during famines, poor incomes and a multitude of other reasons for being in food poverty. However, they are also nutrient rich with vitamins and iron, so don’t worry too much about the carbs!

Ways to Prepare Potatoes

Recently, a top food magazine set their chefs and readers a challenge to come up with all the ways to cook a potato – they racked up a total (and cooked them all) of an astounding 59 ways! I don’t think I could stare a potato in the eye for a while after that, but expel them from my diet forever? I would truly get withdrawal symptoms. Boiled, baked, roasted, fried, jackets, layered, mashed, rosti (that leaves 51 still) – I don’t mind – just give me potatoes on my dinner!


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Ready to make soup?
Find the Creamy Potato, Fennel and Turnip soup recipe here!


Potatoes in Soups, Stews, Casseroles and Curries

Sorry, whoops, I unintentionally forgot how great they are in soups, casseroles and as a side in curries (I adore Bombay potatoes with spinach, onions and loads of spices). If you don’t like them in chunks, use them as a thickening agent, they do wonders for a casserole or soup that is a little on the watery side. Pureed or creamed are good, if you happen to have dodgy teeth and can’t bite anything remotely hard! They certainly are the men for all seasons served on your plate.

Using herbs, spices and seasoning will lift your potatoes into another echelon entirely, almost making them the focal point of a dish, with other ingredients paling into insignificance. You may think I have finally lost the plot, but honestly, treat your spuds with love and respect and you will benefit.

The Brits love them, the Germans can’t imagine life without potatoes and even the nations who have plenty of food supplies still find a space for spuds on their plate. As we head towards January and ‘Burns Night’, the Scottish inhabitants are already in deep conversation about what particular variety of potato to use in their ‘neeps and tatties’, the accompaniment to the ubiquitous haggis. For those of you who have no idea what neeps are, they are, in fact, turnips. Sound horrible? Try it, with lashing of real butter and seasoning! (At this point, it has become all too much for diet-conscious food professionals to bear, so get out the smelling salts).

What are ‘Bangers and Mash‘?

Whilst writing this article and during conversation with my chef colleagues, we discovered an amazing fact about our ‘millennial generation’, which all but caused me to weep uncontrollably for several days after. Go into any pub, gastro pub and even a top restaurant such as one of Gordon Ramsay’s establishments, and you will find ‘sausage and mash’ or ‘bangers and mash’. Quite simply a sausage is a sausage, but also a colloquial banger, and mash is well, mashed potatoes. Around 50% of 24–40-year-olds, DIDN’T KNOW WHAT MASH WAS!! To compound this deeply disturbing revelation, ‘Toad in the Hole’ is a derivative of the sausage, just cooked in batter, so these tasty babes poke out of the batter from a savoury cake-like mix – yum. But 25% of them thought that the ‘toad’ was actually a real toad! Honestly, did they not go to school? Learn some British culinary history, darn it!! I won’t get on to ‘Spotted Dick’, another traditional dish, it would be all too much for me in one go.

Before I go for a lie down to recover from these startling facts, a word of encouragement for the humble potato. How many times on the way back from work does your mind turn to supper and the fact that you don’t have a lot in your fridge until you do your supermarket shop at the weekend? It’s Friday night, the kids will be starving, and you need sustenance. Have you got any potatoes? Surely so, they will be your saviour.

One of my ‘turn to when all else fails’ recipes is Cheesy Potato Cakes with Brown Butter, Spring Onions and Crispy Chilli Oil. Luckily, I tend to have some ready-cooked potatoes covered in the fridge, they are delicious if they are cut into chunks and boiled in their skins, saves a wealth of time and a great way to use up spuds that may be just about beginning to render themselves useless. Don’t waste them, cook them up and keep in the fridge. I created my recipe a million moons ago, but I notice that it has been ‘copied’ so many times by other chefs and even features in newspapers and magazines. Ottolenghi, who I admire and respect has his version, which recently appeared in the Irish Times – what a place to have it considering the Irish have such a penchant for potatoes!

Potatoes will continue to live on, in spite of the ne’er sayers!

With the season here, the leaves have turned brown, and coats have come out of the cupboard (in theory, we could still have an Indian summer!), it’s that time to organise your kitchen area and its contents and find out what you really need, and what you certainly don’t! Be ruthless but creative and plan what you can use and have a good declutter. Come on guys, what’s lurking at the back of your cupboards that hasn’t come out of its box, or what half empty packets that are past their sell by dates, I know we all have those!  Let’s not forget about the fridge!

Kitchen Cleaning: Where to Start?

So, your larder or store cupboard is the best starting point. I know that every time I approach the cupboards, I find so many out-of-date spices, pasta, rice and dried pulses. Whilst they lose their flavour, they won’t harm you, they just won’t taste right! Spices will lose their depth and aroma, losing the whole point of using them. Hot becomes much milder and medium will virtually add nothing to a curry or chilli if they are way past their shelf life.

Going through your actual kitchen unit cupboards and equipment can be a real revelation. The crockpot may never even have got out of its box, you bought new things to replace old and never thrown the old ones a way ‘just in case’ – you recognise that scenario? Get that crockpot out, put it in a convenient place and use it! It’s the onset of cold winter months and they are invaluable for casseroles and other hot dishes. It’s great to make stews and casseroles in advance and freeze them, so last minute ‘knee jerk’ meals will become a thing of the past.

I do apologise if you already know all of this, but some people honestly don’t, and it never occurs to them either. Get efficient and then you have time for yourself as well.  A brisk walk, kicking the leaves as you go, then home in front of the fire, feet up and watching an old movie sounds like heaven and it’s good for the soul.

Once you can see what you have clearly, make a list of items you know you will use and buy some in advance. If you haven’t got any airtight jars, do get some for use when making jam, curd, pickle, relishes etc. There will be a ton of ‘slacks’ i.e., unused fruit and veg that you need to use up yourself, certainly in the UK, farmers give them away to clear their land for the next season. Soft fruit is a really good bet for jams etc, pick your own as they are beginning to ‘turn’ and you will either be charged an absolute pittance or nothing at all. Pickling is a fabulous way of using up almost any fruit or vegetable in a chutney or relish. As long as you are not allergic to them, incorporate nuts, such as walnuts into your chutney, i.e., apple and walnut (add a touch of celery and it goes perfectly with a lovely cheese or meat platter). Or you can give them out at Christmas as an extra present by putting pretty labels on them.

Tips for stocking your autumn kitchen

Hot off the press today! There will apparently be a shortage of pumpkins this year – yes, believe it! If you are a fan of pumpkins whether its carving or making delicious pies or muffins, look out for local farm and shops and get them now! There is a glut at the moment, but as there are not enough pickers and packers (a lot of workers have gone home to Eastern Europe due to the pandemic) no heavy goods drivers, so pumpkins are currently sitting in the fields and will soon start to rot. You don’t want to miss out on Halloween or Thanksgiving, do you?

Again, if we are to believe what is in the media, people will start to panic buy, so if you love baking or any form of cooking during this season, get well stocked now with your favourite warming spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, all spice, ginger, cardamom, turmeric, thyme, rosemary and bay leaves.

Equally so, plenty of nuts, dried fruit and seeds such as mixed dried fruit (including cranberries, sultanas, currants), candied peel, canned beans and lentils. Also think of brown sugar, icing sugar and perhaps marzipan for your Christmas cake!

Christmas Preparation

Do you like stuffing your turkey? Don’t forget to freeze old breadcrumbs in bags and have dried sage and plenty of onions or shallots to hand.

A lot to think about and stock up with! But I love the autumn into Christmas season. When you open your front door and delicious aromas flood your senses. My grandchildren hurtle into the house and straight to the kitchen, seeing what I have baked that day to fill their empty tummies after a hard day at school and a frosty walk home. I must be quick, so I have some left to freeze! Yum, is all I can hear from them and its heart-warming!

I know that most of you who have feasted in Mexican restaurants will realise that chilli and beans are not the staple diet of the Mexican people, it could not be further from the truth. Whilst in Mexico in November prior to lockdown, I probably ate more vegetarian food than meat-based meals. Of course, chilli peppers are very much featured in most dishes from varying strengths. A word of warning – whilst the locals always ask you how hot you would like your dish – remember that ‘throat-ripping’ flavour is more common than not!

Mexico at a Glance

Firstly though, I would like to mention the deep and meaningful culture of this amazing country – for once, I was entranced by this as much as the food. Mexico is a land of festivals, fiesta and religious days, all of which will involve food! Each village and town will have their own ‘special’ celebrations, but there are many national days, the most famous, being The Day of the Dead, or ‘Dia de Los Muertos’. It is definitely an out of body experience, to say the least! Do not get spooked, it is a fun and joyous time, and something I will remember forever, particularly the vibrant and colourful costumes that everyone wears. Wanting to do as Mexicans do, the night before the important day, we went into a huge shop and bought some costumes, so that we would fit in with the crowds!

Celebrating Dia de Los Muertos

Celebrated every year on November 2nd, preparation will start days before as shrines and other commemorations to the dead of the family are revered everywhere. Glorious costumes are made, including the famous sugar skeleton masks and outfits – it is quite intimidating when you see them walking towards you, or jumping out from behind something!

There are food stalls as far as you can see with various offerings from breakfasts to dinners and snacks. We breakfasted on (wait for it) something I like to call ‘cactus on toast’! It’s the prickly pear variety and we had ours grilled and placed on the omnipresent ‘tacos’, and then smothered in green sauce and cheese. The cactus is grilled in huge pads across a barbecue and is surprisingly tender. I must admit, I ended up with quite a penchant for ‘nopales’, the name of this often-eaten breakfast. Believe me when I say some of it was a little off-putting, so I drew the line at ‘chapulines’ – roasted grasshoppers!

Somehow, we managed to include a sort of puffed corn soup (pozole) accompanied by Day of the Dead bread (Pan de Muertes) at lunchtime. Dinner was tasty grilled garlicky chicken smothered in ‘mole’, a traditional chocolate sauce flavoured with chilli with a deep and unctuous flavour. I really loved it. To cool our mouths down, we had ‘pastel de tres leches’, a sponge with a topping made of condensed milk, evaporated milk and a few slivers of nuts with so much sugar to make your teeth curl! Needing more refreshment for my burning mouth, we picked up a bag of freshly sliced pineapple that had been iced so it was soothingly cold and so, so fresh and sweet. I refrained from the chopped chillies they offered as an accompaniment – I wonder why?

Mole’ is a sauce made from chocolate, but in every family, they will have their own recipe, and this will be a closely guarded secret, so don’t ask, create your own!

We had some Mexican friends who joined us later in the day who tried to explain more about the background behind this special day, but to be honest, it was so noisy and raucous, you were somewhat swept away with it all. I do not think words can describe it, but if you have ever watched the James Bond movie Spectre and the opening scenes, it is as close as I can describe it!

Our final deed before moving on to a bit of relaxation elsewhere and some normality (believe me, this was so tiring an experience) we picked up some souvenirs, including some ‘calaveras de Alzucar’, some intricately painted mini sugar skulls. These are edible, but normally they are simply left in the shrines or somewhere visible as a token offering to the dead loved one. Some will have feathers or another décor, and they can be smiling. The size of the sweet offering will show whether the passed soul was a child or an adult. I must admit I was quite touched by this.

Heading to the Coast

Wanting to have some cool breeze along the coast, we travelled up to the trendier Baja California Peninsular for a bit of relaxation as well as a change in food. As a fish lover, this was going to be the perfect place to re-adjust my digestive system!

Baja California is actually a Mexican state, the reasons for which are too politically difficult to explain. Of course, the area does have a Californian influence, with the spectacular ocean and beaches there and the fun and vibrant city of Tijuana (great for shopping), which is close to San Diego. If you enjoy a tipple, there are so many bars and restaurants that are extremely lively, and this tends to spread deep into the night. For now, though, I was looking for something more sedate, as well as a market or two – I was having withdrawal symptoms by now!

Once we got our bearings in the cute town of Rosarito where we were staying in a quirky little ‘casa’ with only a few rooms, we checked out the local information. As usual, if you really want to know anything – ask a local! The owner’s daughter told us we had to visit the fish market at Popotla, luckily not that far away and that she would be going the next morning, as chance would have it. She was also going to point out the best beach shacks to eat from – I could not wait for that experience.

Slightly off the beaten track, well to be honest the market was at the end of a dirt road, you suddenly hit upon a buzzing locale, with fish trading going on everywhere around you, and huge plastic tables piled to the gunnels with yellow fin tuna, king crab, red snapper, oysters and clams. The latter two of this group of shiny bright-eyed fish were shucked with dexterity in front of you, the recipients being residents and restaurants all over the Baja area. Both men and women worked the market, something that is not so usual in other countries. As far as you could see, the traders were lifting the fish aloft to attract the attention of the nearest buyer whilst financial negotiations were taking place – fascinating, as although I speak reasonable Spanish, I did not understand more than a word or two of their speech. Tempting tasters are always on offer – call me heathen but I am not exactly partial to oysters so I made my colleague taste one – beautiful was his response, and the best he had ever tasted.

What is great about Popotla is that it is exactly what is says on the tin. No tacky souvenir vendors, no hustlers, just pure fish for sale. As for its location – wow. Right on the beach, and the one thing for sure you know is that in the oceanfront restaurants, the fish is fresh and straight off the boat!

Opting for my favourite shack-eating experience, we had ceviche served in a coconut shell – double wow. Probably my favourite of our Mexican journey. Ceviche is raw and marinated fish, usually in lemon and lime, which gently cooks the seafood. I think ours also had some delicate little clams, but the taste was so wonderful and fresh, leaving a ‘wake up’ zing in your mouth. Totally, outrageously delicious, far better than sushi or sashimi in my book, especially with a grind of pepper or two.

The coast road was lined with camper vans on their ‘Baja California Road Trip’. Next time I visit, I am going to do just that. So much to see and eat, but not enough time to do it! I will be back, for sure.

Whilst I do take eggs seriously when it comes to eating them, like any other foodstuff, I love to investigate the origin of what we eat and why we eat it, including topics such as ’20 fun facts about eggs’. I don’t know why, but I spend time once a month teaching primary school children about food, its healthy qualities etc., but make it fun. I am told by the Principle of the school that she has never known children to have such memory retention after my lesson, for several days afterwards! They call me ‘the mad cooking lady’! I quite love it and it proves that even whether a child is a super-brain or not, make it fun, be crazy – it truly works! Accompanied by a few magic or scientific tricks, it really keeps them entertained.

When I was at culinary school in Paris, we were not allowed to progress unless we could cook eggs in three different ways, we chose which way we wanted to do them and they had to be a perfect cook – harder than you think! Students giggled and thought it was going to be a breeze…. little did they know as I watched them, time after time, having their culinary perfection thrown in the bin with a flourish and a good deal of muttering by chef. ‘Repete’ he would shout indiscreetly, and everyone’s head would turn, open-mouthed, as they realised that their culinary creation could be next for ‘the chop’. Chef was the epitome of putting the fear of God into everyone’s minds!

The Serious Business of Eggs

Eggs are a serious matter, so let’s cut to the chase. Frying, baking, boiling, scrambling, poaching, making tarts, quiches et al, all have an element of difficulty. I know what you are thinking (Frying eggs? How can that be tricky? Baking cakes? Everyone loves your cakes). But just because they love something you cook, doesn’t mean they are perfect! But our dear oval-headed, protein and vitamin packed egghead, is a smart cookie (sorry about the baking pun).

Eggs provide shape and form by using their proteins to make everything stick together, but still be light and airy, similar to how gluten behaves. Great bakers have ‘cracked’ that solution! Too many eggs in a mix will, however, make a cake heavy and just one round sweet lump of a munch. Too many of todays’ cakes suffer from this as well as over-beating and over-whisking, and maybe that’s what Bob the Builder likes, but give me a soft, light and mouth-watering choccie version and I am all yours. I prefer not to use my teeth as a pneumatic drill!

The Benefits of Eggs

Eggs do have amazing benefits though, providing high quality protein, vitamins, folates and maintaining ‘good cholesterol’. They help in weight maintenance and are healthy foodstuffs to keep in your diet. Like anything else, keep your consumption balanced and you will reap the benefits.

I was taught by a master chef. He was tough, but fair. If you are going to learn or have a great cooking career, you must come from the school of hard knocks and take it with style. One day he took me to one side and read me the riot act about something I had done without passion, but he became my mentor for five  years. Classical training to start with is the foundation to being a goddess in the kitchen.

A fun fact but apparently true – every morning at school we witnessed the same ritual. Chef Claude was one of those pristinely presented men, who took tremendous pride in his ‘whites’, particularly his enormous hat which used to bewitch me as it stood tall and proud (just like him). I had never seen a hat with so many perfectly crisp pleats in it. When I knew him well, I asked him one day why it had so many pleats in it. He gave a wry smile and said ‘when you learn to cook eggs to perfection in every way, you will gain your pleats’. I later found out that this is a built-in tradition of the French.

His hat had 20 pleats… put it this way, I am not going to tell you how far I got!

 

Squash is available all year round but is mainly divided into winter and summer. Winter squash is so versatile – it can be used in a variety of ways, in soups and stews and can be a valuable cooking ingredient. Roasted squash is equally as tasty, as is cooking it and filling it with something delicious. Use it as a substitute for potatoes, it provides enough bulk and can help thicken up most sauces or soups. It provides good nutrition and is low in calories and not too bad in carbs. Protein delivers around 2% to help repair and build healthy cells.

Butternut Squash

Butternut squash is probably the most well-known of the variety with its ‘pear-shaped’ look, but it does have a thick skin which can be difficult to peel easily. Fight your way through the peeling process, as what is beneath is well worth the effort. Most people are surprised that they grow on a vine and when ready to pick, are usually anywhere between a deep yellow and a bright orange. Economical to buy in the UK, which is different to most vegetables along with other pulses, as it is relatively easy to grow. In India, it is widely used in curries, which are particularly flavourful and freeze easily, either frozen or raw.


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Hankering a taste for Butternut squash soup?
Find this Creamy, Vegan Butternut Squash, Sweet Potato and Pear soup recipe here!


Acorn Squash

Acorn squash is also found here, but not so readily as its best friend, the butternut. This is probably because it is only harvested in autumn, so doesn’t have the length of availability in UK shops. Interesting, the taste is different – it is sweeter and nuttier and can be found in different shapes as opposed to simply round. It tends to be green but sometimes with a yellow or orange ‘splodge’. Nutrition value is high, plenty of omega-3 fats and fibre, both beneficial to a healthy diet. A chef I know, uses it in  a form of pumpkin pie, as they are definitely sweeter than other types of squash.

There are plenty of squash competitions, but no real festivals or national days. But farmers do get involved in largest, most colourful, odd shape and beautiful’, in village fetes up and down the UK. It really is a quaint little tradition and brings different communities together. Besides which, you can enjoy an afternoon cream tea to boot!

How to Buy Squash

When deciding which squash to buy, pick one or two that have smooth, unblemished skin. All squash feels heavy, so don’t be put off by that, and don’t go for the bright orange ones, just because your eyes are attracted to them. Smooth-ish skin is much more important.

Easiest Ways to Prepare Squash

Do you know the best and easiest way to prepare squash? A lot of people are put off from using squash as it can be tricky. It can often slip and slide on your worktop if you don’t get a firm grip on it, causing some nasty cuts with the sharp knife you must use to cut through the tough outer skin. Here is the best way to cut it:

Cutting the squash

Place a damp tea towel on to your work surface. Put your board on the top. Grip firmly with one hand and firmly cut down across the middle. If it really is too hard, cover the knife and squash with another tea towel and hit the back of the knife with something heavy to split it down the centre.

Peeling the squash

Depending on the shape, either support it on its side with your hand or sit it flat on the board. Use a sharp vegetable peeler or sharp knife to peel off the skin. If you’re roasting large segments, it’s easier to remove the skin after cooking. You don’t need to worry about squashes with softer skin – it gets even softer with cooking. Cut in half or quarters.

Removing the seeds

Take a large spoon and scoop out the seeds and stringy bits. Yippee! Ready to cut into cubes or slices for roasting. If you are not going to use it there and then, place in damp plastic bags and it will keep for over a week in the fridge. Otherwise, freeze it.

Most hard-skinned squash can be stored whole in a dark place, and they will last for 2 or even 3 months.

Make the most of squash in the autumn and winter, particularly soups, as you can achieve a great texture. I love roasted squash, particularly in a tray with lots of other vegetables and cooked in olive oil. Saves time and washing up!

Tofu is not the world’s favourite, but of course, it is popular in Japan where it originated back in the 8th Century and was created by a chef who forgot what he was doing and managed to curdle some soy milk when mixing it with seaweed!

However, it didn’t really hit Western shores until around the end of the 19th century and was not mass produced until much later in the USA.

Not everyone enjoys tofu, and in fact it is difficult to convince any non-believers that it can be good to eat and is so versatile as a meat substitute. Vegetarians and vegans have taken it to their hearts and there now is even a National Tofu Day on September 1st, every year. There is not much pomp and circumstance surrounding it, like other national days when festivals and fetes really promote their days. Restaurants will even create a special event on those days with some ‘specials’ added to the menu.

The Taste of Tofu

So, what does tofu taste like? Well, not a lot really, it’s pretty bland until you do something with it. But this is why it can be so popular – it will absorb any flavours you mix it with and become something so different. It’s made from dried soybeans, mixed with water and crushed up after boiling. It is then formed into how we normally see it in blocks and left packaged in water. If you want to keep tofu for up to a week, you must change the water, otherwise, quite simply, it will go off – then it smells and tastes incredibly sour, when it should actually taste nutty and slightly sweet.

What to Do with Tofu

So, what can you do with Tofu? – There are so many recipes and ways to use it. Before anything else, you need to prepare the tofu. Selecting the right tofu is vitally important – it should be chosen because of its texture – either silken, or medium firm to extra firm. Soft silken tofu is excellent for making desserts such as mousses or anything needing a blender, whereas the firmer tofu is perfect for cooking main dishes or using it to top other dishes, by cooking it until crisp. You should squeeze it first to remove excess water, (between paper towels or clean tea towels). Please don’t buy an expensive ‘tofu squeezer’, it will sit in your cupboard gaining dust, like most other non-essential gadgets!

Use Your Tofu Now

The key is in the preparation now. Tofu must be marinated or well-seasoned, otherwise, you could be eating anything as it is so bland. Marinate it in a spicy blend (sriracha, soy or tamari, that kind of thing) and then fry it until it’s crispy round the edges, but still chewy in the middle. You can bake it as well, just ensure the edges go golden brown and crispy. You can cook it as a block, or cubed. Once cooked, try eating it as a topping, or in a dish such as a stir fry, noodles, soups or stews. Anything smoked also goes well with tofu. Anything that you would use meat in, can be substituted for tofu. It fares well with oriental style dishes – sweet and sour tofu, teriyaki tofu, coconut curries etc.  You can even have it scrambled on toast for breakfast!

Give tofu a chance, it’s worth it, particularly on National Tofu Day – it deserves a break!

It is understandable that anything small, round (like pea shape or similar) and edible, can be called a ‘bean’. But there is more to beans than you may know, so let’s cut to the chase and discern what is a bean, and what is actually ‘a legume’.

The first certified records for the existence of beans in the human diet was back in 6750 B.C by Egyptian sources, but many food historians believe that they go even further back. These beans (and legumes) have not altered much in any way – size, colour, texture and most of all flavour. The good old beans stewing in the pot when hunter-gatherer came home, are virtually the same as they are now!

So, let’s crack the doubt and reveal what is a bean and what is a legume, their similarities and their differences. An important fact to remember, however, is that both beans and legumes are very healthy additions to your diet. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter – including them in your food regime does. Put simply (I hope!)

 

Beans are the produce or ‘seeds’ that grow inside a plant of many different varieties.

Legumes are the plants that bear the fruit contained within pods. So technically, they are, of course, exactly the same family with the legume being the plant ‘host’ to the ‘fruit’ inside, the beans.

Got it? I hope so, it can be confusing to say the least. You may be thinking, ‘let’s just eat beans/legumes, who cares!

Beans varieties as we know them

The most common beans likely to adorn your soups, casseroles and other dishes and readily available in supermarkets, dried or canned, are:

Some of these, such as Edamame, will grace many a salad, as will chickpeas, but most beans can be used for cooking and for cold dishes. As a staple dish, I would highly recommend keeping a small selection of them in your store cupboard, as you can knock up a healthy and filling dish in no time.


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Ready to make soup?
Find inspiration with these bean soup  recipe here!


 

So, just checking again, have you got it?! I hope I do not confuse you more by telling you that peanuts are also a type of bean! For many years, I thought they were a nut!

There are over 400 types of beans in the world! Some of these I would say are a duplication and are simply known by a different name in various parts of the world. Most beans you can mix with vegetables just before they are no longer fresh and magically a nourishing and flavourful soup or stew can appear.

Know how to cook beans?

Sometimes canned beans just make life simpler, particularly if you are in a hurry. You can also tell how many you must allot for each person, simply by looking in the can.

If you can bear the thought of it, buy dried beans in bulk, it is so economical and they will last for around a year in your cupboard, as long as you store them in an airtight container. I always soak my beans overnight, but if I need to speed up, I will soak them in hot water for one hour. Apparently, if you have an electric pressure cooker, you can make a quantity of creamy, tender beans with a lovely flavour, but honestly, I have never tried it – somehow to me using an advance piece of machinery takes away the joy of getting down and dirty with my beans!

Why soak beans?

Well, basically it is to remove some of the starch that can lead to a very upset tummy – so best to follow the advice. As a guideline (and it is a little vague) one cup of dried beans will produce 2-3 cups of cooked beans, but it depends on the size of the bean! They only way to get it right, is to do it time and time again with different beans. You will soon get the hang of it.

Without getting too far into the nutritional nitty-gritty of why beans are good for you, let’s just make it simple. Beans are a versatile way of getting most of the nutrition you need.  High in protein, fibre, vitamins abound, they do also contain a fair amount of carbs.

Whilst certain beans are more commonly used in x, y and z recipes, beans are so adaptable, that more or less anything goes, so you should not have any culinary disasters.

Bean-based meals

Step away from the plate once in a while, come out of your comfort zone, and try new things such as Chickpea Fritters or Burgers, Bean and Pesto Mash (better than potatoes are for you), Bean Crostinis, Herby Bean Bread, Bean Flatbreads – the choice is pretty amazing. Don’t forget that the easiest meal to make to add your beans to crockpot and give them a slow cook.

Enjoy your beans – if you know of any great but unique bean recipes, let me know!


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Ready to make soup?
Find this Vegan Split Pea soup  recipe here!


Sous vide cooking hit the domestic world about ten years ago, but it had been around for a lot longer commercially. There seems to be quite a difference of opinion in terms of using it as a ‘home cooking’ method, and commercially, some chefs love it, and others would not let sous vide machines within a mile of their restaurants.

At the onset, machines and the paraphernalia to go with them, such as vac bags were all expensive items, but now sous vide has become very affordable.

What is sous vide Cooking?

What is sous vide cooking? In a nutshell, it is a method by which precise temperature control is used to ensure consistency of the cook itself, and fans will say that it provides exactly the right ‘doneness’ of the food and impeccable quality. It is simple – sous vide means ‘under vacuum’, and nowadays you can literally operate them at the touch of a button. However, the chef jury are split on this and particularly the most vociferous. From my point of view, it is great for some meals, but not so great for others, but like everything else, you need to try it and make your own judgement. But it is easy, as long as you have space in your kitchen for the equipment, as the method of using a large water bath is definitely difficult in smaller areas. Opinions vary:

Taste

Not as tasty as other methods, like grilling a steak, but you will get the right texture and whether you want it rare or well done. But it certainly does lack in flavour if you like that charcoal taste to your grilled steak. Meat in general should be heavily marinated before popping into your chosen vac bag or Ziplock (that is another issue – machine manufacturers will tell you best results come from the vac bags, but that is because they sell them with the sealing machine!) But it is the taste that counts, cooking sous vide will ensure that it is cooked evenly.

Appearance

The appearance of the finished item – I find that a steak needs to be finished off in a pan, to get that nice brownish crust, that you do not get with sous vide. There is just something about seeing it that way on your plate. Arguably, you can fill the bag with herbs and spices before immersing in hot water, it’s horses for courses.

Ease of Use

They certainly are easy to operate, and good manufacturers will supply clear and concise instructions, as well as recipes to try. It is also a ‘cleaner’ method of cooking – no messy pans to wash up (unless you use my method of cooking steak or chicken!). You also have the benefit of no constant operating switches to turn heat up or down. Top choices are immersion circulators, which means these units clip to the side of a pot and work to keep the water a consistent temperature. It’s also very easy to clean the machine or parts without too much hassle.

Waste Reduction

Something we are all concerned about these days, there is too much food wastage. This is where sous vide really comes into play. For instance, a piece of beef or steak will lose up to 40% of its volume and be dry in places or sometimes all the way through. You do not get this with sous vide, it’s perfectly cooked, how you want it (even colour and juiciness all the way through, unlike conventional cooking methods (for some that are inexperienced). You are unlikely to eat dry, chewy meat the following day, as sous vide cooking will retain the meat juices. Juicy pieces of meat are very tasty the next day too!

Eat When You Want

Cooking sous vide allows you the flexibility of eating when you want and not having to attend it all the time – a little like why we all use crockpots or slow cookers, just not quite so precise in timing.

My Recommendations

Personally, you cannot fail if you cook your eggs in a sous vide, whether you want perfectly boiled or poached, soft and runny eggs, even though it may seem a bit of a rigmarole as opposed to just putting them in a pan in water. But boy, these eggs are good, and perfect every time. I am also keen on vegetables, for the same reason – you cannot really fail, it’s simply a question of timing and following instructions in the beginning. You can also cook grains, beans and some desserts such as custard to go with a delicious home-baked apple pie. As a fish lover, I would use an SV, fish is always meltingly soft and glossy.

If you are going to cook the sous vide way, I would suggest that you arm yourself with everything you need, plus a good sous vide cookbook, showing temperatures and timing. You don’t want your perfect steak looking like ribs, and vice versa!

If you are lucky enough to have friends who use this method of cooking, see if they will let you have a go, before you dig into your pockets and buy a machine. All too often, cupboards and garages are full of the latest ‘kitchen fads’, that have barely come out of their boxes!

Food is personal to every individual; it is a journey of emotion, of taste and, of course, satisfaction. Likewise, so are movies. It is a feeling of wanting to eat it all again even though you are bursting, or keep the movie on constant play.

Just as my home library is creaking with books on food (must catalogue them one day), so is my DVD selection. In fact, quite a few are the old VHS system, but I just cannot bear to throw them away or indeed, pay a fortune to get them converted to a new system.

I don’t watch movies at the cinema – I bring them to me and I either watch alone or with some foodie friends and appropriate snacks and dips, so much so that the carpet is always a mess at the end of the night! To watch something so enjoyable for me in a soulless movie theatre, is just not my bag. You just want to get into the moment or moments when you feel you are in amongst the dishes and you can almost smell and taste them.

Reliving Food Memory

Food is the memory of a moment, a place or an experience. As I have travelled and worked so widely, conversation always seems to come back to ‘oh, what did you have to eat there’, or some such question that I am always happy to wax lyrical to. Slightly embarrassed to admit, I am unequivocally a food movie junkie (as in ‘cannot get enough of them’).

So, sit back and get comfortable (maybe a snack?), and join me on my movie journey of some of my favourites. The synopsis will be brief, as I must let other contributors share the Simply Souperlicious space! No specific order, and no specific genre (well, food of course) in my titles.

Favorite Movies about Food

I tend to avoid reading a book, then following it up with the movie, but I can break that rule. ‘The Hundred Foot Journey’ was enjoyable in both instances, and you can’t get away from the on-screen relationship between Helen Mirren and Om Puri, rival restaurateurs. Mirren owns an exceptional Michelin starred French restaurant, and Puri and his vast Indian family set up opposite her – 100 feet away. The story develops through food and flexibility, with Mirren having to change her ways and Puri trying to attract customers to ‘this new foreign cuisine’. Surreptitiously, they both bend their ways through food and ideas and come to a romantic compromise! Other relationships develop throughout, but food is certainly the star attraction of the movie. Cinematography is great, close ups of dishes and plenty of recipe creation.

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‘Eat, Pray, Love’ with Julia Roberts in the lead is truly a spiritual food journey. Escaping from a messy break up with her husband, Julia goes to find herself, her soul and potentially love through a series of different countries. I guess we would call that backpacking with a meaning! In terms of food content, Italy comes to the fore, with India and Indonesia more on the spiritual side, but it is worth it just for the Italian food and her quest for the perfect pizza. Well thanks Julia, I went to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michel on a visit to Naples, and whilst I am not a pizza fan I had to agree – best I have ever tasted! If you find yourself in Naples, do not expect to walk in the door – they are booked months ahead!

In ‘Chef’, Jon Favreau plays a down on his luck chef, and after being fired due to arguing with a critic, sets off with his son to buy his dream – a food truck! You could say he was another lost soul, wanting to find himself and his passion for food that had long since waned due to the ‘wrong owner’ (played by Dustin Hoffman). The moral of this story is cook what you want to cook, and how you want to cook it, follow your dreams and your stomach! Very enjoyable comedy/drama and he even finds love, but I am not giving too much away!

‘Big Night ‘– this is an oldie (1996) but eminently watchable. The fantastic Stanley Tucci stars as one of two brothers owning an Italian restaurant in the 1950s, where they cannot agree on the food on the menu. If you want to see dish after dish of Italian food, the story plays out when they decide to have one night of epic dining, facing each other like two warring stags. The setting of New Jersey and the Paradise Restaurant is highly believable. Do they save the restaurant from going under? You will have to watch it and see. Isabella Rossellini also appears to add more Italian flavour.

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Some people may disagree with me, but I really enjoyed ‘Julie and Julia’ as I am a huge fan of Julia Child, the slightly eccentric but renowned American chef. Julie’s cooking heroine is also Julia Child, so she sets out to recreate 524 dishes from Ms Childs’ book, ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’, of which a signed copy by Julia herself, sits proudly on my library shelf. It is a fun movie, if slightly vacuous in places, as you watch the triumphs and disasters of the recipes Julie cooks, and how she recounts every day on her blog. The film was panned by critics, as ‘obviously a scam to make money from a blog’ – but I found the film enjoyable and put that down to jealousy of other bloggers! Meryl Streep is excellent as Julia if a little OTT. Somehow, Stanley Tucci managed to sneak into yet another foodie film as Julia’s doting husband!

Whilst totally given away in the title, Chocolat will not fail to draw you into the atmosphere behind the film. The first thing you will want to do is pick up the nearest box or bar offering and chow on down. Every element of this film is evocative, from the story to the offerings in the small artisan chocolate shop set up in a quaint village, much to the horror of some of the more ‘stately dames’. Miss Binoche who plays the starring role is seductive, alluring and looks like she is tasting chocolate full time! It is a good story, it is romantic, and you can smell the chocolate through the screen. It helps that Johnny Depp and Judi Dench also play amazing parts in this truly enjoyable movie. Watch it!

That is it for now folks, perhaps my esteemed patron of Simply Souperlicious will let me return to my library for another viewing session! There are some great movies out there, and I have deliberately stayed away from some of the dark and potentially highbrow ones – this is supposed to be fun!

 

When I told a few of my colleagues that I was visiting Mallorca on a food trip, their expressions ranged from a wry smirk, to incredulous and on to ‘the woman’s gone mad kind of look’. Well, I hadn’t, I knew that I would find plenty of gems to reveal to them and to the magazine who had commissioned me.

Accompanied by my trusty ‘genius with a lens’ we flew into Palma, a flight of only 2hrs 45mins from the UK. Making wide sweeps over the north of the island, the pilot put on the fasten your seat belts sign and hot footed it down (rapidly may I say) into Palma Airport. But I was still marvelling at the tremendous landscape in the north, not the built-up metropolis of the south, where we could actually see what I called ‘Bottleneck Beach’, the sun worshippers were so close together! I already knew that I couldn’t wait to get back to the north, with the rugged and glorious Tramuntana Mountains, dotted with small villages, ‘fincas’, shepherds huts and some luxury villas and hotels (the latter was in the minority). Celebrity homes abound – think Michael Douglas, Rafael Nadal, Pierce Brosnan, Claudia Schiffer, Suzi Quatro and many others. Richard Branson, the aviation entrepreneur, once owned ‘La Residencia’ hotel, but sold out to a group in early 2000. Deia, where it is located, should be on your list of places to visit in the north.

Visiting the North of Mallorca

I had a feeling about the north and could not wait to get back there. Fortunately, we were staying there most of the time, with one night in Palma to ‘experience’ the food delights on offer. The moral of my story is ‘avoid the beaches of the south and go for the towns and villages inland and mainly to the north’, that offer so much more.

Majorca during the late ‘60s and ad infinitum was given a bad rap, mostly pointing to the British tourists who arrived in their droves by package tours and who sought ‘fish and chips’, ‘Eeenglish Brekfast’ (never spelt correctly then), and ‘Typhoo Tea’. Well, you can still get all of those things to make you feel at home, but Majorca is so, so much more. Anyone mention paella or spit-roasted suckling pig? But do not worry vegetarians and vegans, (particularly soup lovers), you have a culinary mountain of dishes to choose from.

We had taken an early flight, which took us into our hotel, safe and sound by 8am! No checking in before 2pm, so we dumped our bags and headed straight out onto the bustling Palma streets, heading towards the first foodie paradise we could find – and we did. Needless to say, I can smell a market from a mile away!

Visiting the Markets

I would like to take the opportunity of thanking the delicious Mallorquin man, who advised us to go to ‘Mercat 1930’ – this venue is an example of how the gastronomic market trend has hit Palma hard and fast, and the city now boasts two of these hot spots to choose from. In fact, you can go to a market any day of the week, in some town or another! It is very much ‘street’ as opposed to luxury with so many stalls all under one roof, offering not just Mallorquin dishes, but also others from worldwide, such is the availability of top-notch produce. Here, vermouth bars and sherry bars cohabit together, along with a mixture of tapas style dishes to sumptuous grilled meat and fish platters. Don’t forget, you can buy virtually any foodstuff you require if you are on holiday where you need to cook. Not your typical markets, but you can wile away hours and hours at both the Mercado Gastronómico de San Juan and Mercat 1930. Opening hours are extensive, whether breakfast or through to late night tapas or snacks.

In Search of Tapas

Meandering through the back streets of Palma revealed so many delights. We stopped off at a small tapas bar, packed with locals, some eating late breakfast and others with tables full of early lunchtime tapas. It was tapas for us all the way, so we chose the all-inclusive mixed selection – great choice of ‘pinxtos’ and tapas consisting of hot and cold specialities of spicy ‘gambas’ (prawns), ‘patatas bravas’ (diced potatoes in a deep tomato/chilli sauce), deep fried calamari with aioili, ‘albondigas’ (meatballs), ‘croquetas’ (potato croquettes with ham and cheese filling) and of course, ‘pan con tomate’ with Iberian ham – I just love this and frequently make it at home. It is akin to a slightly soggy bruschetta (the tomatoes are rubbed into the bread surface, as is garlic), but the depth of the tomato flavour is beyond imagination, sweet but still a deep earthiness.

A quick word about the ‘Ramallet’, a Majorcan grown tomato, brought in from South America in the 16th Century. They are sown onto a string and hung to deepen the flavour, and it works. I could eat them by the bucketload! They roast beautifully too.

That’s enough on Palma, although there is so much else to say, but we had a date the next day with a driver to take us on to our stop, Soller, and back to my comfort zone of the north of the island. The hotel we stayed in was quite small and ‘boutiquey’ and surrounded by pine forest – the backdrop of the mountains was only a stone’s throw away – but that’s tomorrows story. We had a relatively ‘quiet’ evening, ate off the hotel grill, (still drooling over the herbed lamb cutlets) accompanied by a ‘few’ glasses of wine, then it was sleep time, ready for our journey the next day…

The stables were located just inside the foothills of this stunning landscape of the Tramuntana Mountains. Our guide hurried us along, as we had little time to waste, so horses suitably picked akin to our relevant experience, we took off up the weaving journey to our overnight destination, halfway up, about 5km, which we were told would take about 3 hours!!! Our guide, Joaquin, knew the route so well and spoke impeccable English (and French and German!). Gaston was the fourth member of our party, a delightful donkey or ‘burro’, that carried all the camera equipment and did not say much!

Our hosts ran a converted shepherd’s hut with three bedrooms, beautifully and traditionally decorated, and a kitchen with a fairly basic oven and hob, but outside was a hand-built grill/oven and seating area, where the food activity took place. You can stay here and learn Spanish dishes for quite a small cost in comparison to other destinations. You could smell something wonderful cooking on the grill or was it the outdoor wood-fired oven? The outside table was bedecked with olives, walnut and almond nibbles and some carafes ready for the wine on offer.

After feeding and watering our trusty steeds (Gaston looked suitably unimpressed with his offerings), we washed up, changed and sat out on the patio soaking in the scene around us.  All you could hear was the spitting of the meat as it cooked away, and the cicada symphony in the background!

Hosted by husband and wife, Juan and Isabella, we were smilingly served with amazing efficiency. Globe artichokes, stuffed with zucchini, garlic, walnuts and a soft goats’ cheese, alongside a ‘menestra de verduras’ (Spanish soup), packed with Manzanilla olives, white beans, green beans, onions, garlic, sherry vinegar and some type of cabbage – OMG! It was amazing. Whoops, sorry, I forgot the melange of herbs too.

After the starters, a meltingly tender and deep flavoured lamb shoulder was served, with simple boiled potatoes tossed in herbs and a large bowl of salad. To be honest, words cannot describe the lamb, all I can tell you is the name of the dish, ‘paletilla’. Slow roasted for 5 hours, you can just imagine the flavour, with the sauce made from red wine, thyme and other mountain herbs. Salad appeared, but not as we know it – a selection of leaves, a lot of which I did not recognise, lightly sautéed baby turnips and roughly torn bread, soaked in garlic and olive oil, locally produced.

Isabella had made some little puddings, resembling panna cotta but with a caramel sauce – a little like the Spanish ‘crema Catalana’. Soft and melting with an incredible almost burnt toffee flavour, it was just the right size.

We were desperately in need of forty winks, but out of courtesy, I accepted an offer from Isabella to nip into the village to pick up ‘end of day pastries’. The most glorious little ‘pasteleria’ was well worth my aching legs making the journey! Vanilla cream and apricot doughnut style ‘two bites’, a fig tart and some ‘ensaimada’ – a typical Mallorquin breakfast bread. I had a feeling that we would see the latter again for breakfast – and I was right! Pastries here are an art form – look for ‘cocarrois’’, the local name for anything sweet!

Needless to say, we slept like proverbial logs, after Danny, my photographer, showed us some of the shots he had taken during the day – not just the food, but stunning views from the mountain. I wished it had been February, when the whole area is full of almond blossom and apparently a spectacular sight to behold. Danny would have been in his element.

Breakfast was, as I suspected, ‘sobraisada’ with the bread we had purchased. It’s like a Mallorcan sausage with herbs and spices – Isabella (who makes it herself) had pan fried ours with honey and served with steaming cups of coffee and some sweet cookies with almonds, grated orange zest and raisins. Joaquin had disappeared overnight with horses and donkey in tow to pick up some other guests before he took us back down the mountain to the sea.

We really enjoyed our time ‘up the mountain’ but returned to Palma that day for some more exploring. The fish market was a must do – ‘Lljota del Peix’ is where all the restaurants and hotels buy their fish. You can buy dolphinfish, swordfish, hake, prawns, squid, two types of tuna and something called scorpionfish, which is considered a delicacy (let me know if you try it!). Go early if you want to visit, it is really busy and fish sells out fast. Lunch was at a small restaurant nearby (apparently the passion of the local fishermen), and we had the speciality of an ‘unknown’ local catch, baked in a salt crust. Simply wonderful! We think it was sea bream, known as ‘dorada a la sal’ (salt baked) – do not worry, you cannot taste the salt at all. The predominant taste is the fish, and the herbs that are stuffed inside the cavity before it is crusted and baked. Something marvellous happens inside the crust, which is mixed with egg whites and water to make it stick and bake hard. Cracking into it is full of expectancy!

Unfortunately, it is homeward bound, but do try Mallorca – the food is great, the people hospitable and the weather just wonderful. Whether shopping for food or eating it, you will love Mallorca and I wish I could have revealed more of the culinary delights this island has to offer.

 

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…

  1. Light your fire in plenty of time, to let the coals go white hot (a pale grey really) but slightly glowing. Test the temperature by putting your hand above the heat, about 2.5cm/6 inches. You should be able to hold it there for around 6 seconds without an ‘ouch’ or a burn. Spread the coals so that they are higher on one side than the other – one side for direct heat (the higher amount of coals) and one with no direct heat. This way you can control the cooking time so that there are no cremations!
  2. Prepare your equipment before. A meat slice, tongs, fish slice and even a ‘fish basket to put the fish in for turning if needed. Also, easier to get off the grill.
  3. Alternatively, you can cook the fish with plenty of herbs and citrus in a foil packet (‘en pochette’), wrapped well and then opened just a minute before you serve. Prawns and scallops are great cooked this way, tender and plump. Whole fish are also impressive when slit open and stuffed with herbs, shallots, lemon slices and garlic – is your mouth watering yet?
  4. Marinade again, again and again! Do your produce the night before, cover and refrigerate. When ready to go, spoon over the marinade several times. Use a brush when cooking to moisten the meat and keep the flavour going.
  5. Griddle your veggies – place the veggies so that you get those wonderful char marks off the bars of the barbecue. They look so pretty.
  6. Accompany your barbecue with some equally as tasty salads – totally fresh and a mix of flavours. Tomatoes, cucumber, leafy greens and onions are obvious choices, but jazz them up a bit with thinly sliced fennel, oranges or other fruits (strawberries are amazing in salads). If you do not make a potato salad, wrap some smallish potatoes in foil and cook directly on the coals – the smoky flavour will still permeate!

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.

What is Hummus?

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.

Hummus Fun Facts

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.

Celebrity Hummus Eaters

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.


recipe-creamy-vegan-quinoa-chard-chickpea-soup

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.

Cooking with Gambian Chefs

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 the “Pearl of France”

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!)

Fête du Citron Origins

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.

It’s All About the Lemons

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.

Lemon Desserts, Music, oh’ my!

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!


Recipe-Lemon-Chicken-Orzo-Rice-Soup

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 as a Holiday Destination

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 Cooking in Croatia

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.

Croatian Slow-Cooked Dishes

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.

History of Carrots

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’.


recipe-vegan-carrot-red-lentil-ginger-soup

Find this Carrot, Red Lentil and Ginger soup recipe here!


How to Celebrate International Carrot Day

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!

Carrot Festivals in Switzerland

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. 

Choosing the perfect fish

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.

Take care when choosing your fish

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.

Cooking your fish

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.


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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.

via GIPHY

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.

Here we say what we think could be categorised as ‘food snobbery’.

  1. You do not often get invited to friends for a meal – could be because you either criticise or show no interest in what is on your plate.
  2. You name drop all the way through a social occasion about the places you have eaten and the chefs who know you personally!
  3. Makes and brands are all important to you – you would not serve food on a normal everyday dinner set.
  4. You have every piece of kitchen equipment in the world, from normal to ultra-expensive to quirky – but you have hardly ever used it. That fancy, expensive gadget has not yet been out of the box.
  5. Everything must be organic, and not necessarily because you believe or understand the reasons why.
  6. Perhaps you potentially pronounce difficult foods with more of an accent, or correct a guest when they say something wrong? (Quinoa is a classic example!)
  7. There is no such thing as a ‘gourmet’ fish and chips, burgers or other relatively fast food – the term gourmet is strictly kept to anything above 4.9 stars, even when it tastes good…
  8. You will travel copious miles to source a fresh, but out of season produce. Never mind about the carbon footprint.
  9. Takeaways are not a word in your food dictionary, in fact you have no leaflets or phone numbers for local ones, they all go in the bin.
  10. You may have subscriptions to ‘gourmet food clubs’ but end up throwing a lot away.
  11. You do not visit everyday supermarkets or inexpensive outlets; in case someone sees you!
  12. If you carry a shopping bag, it has to have a top quality outlet written on it – no reused supermarket plastic bags!

via GIPHY

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! 

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.

Remove temptation

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.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew

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.

Be inspired

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.

Don’t spill the beans

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!

Don’t be too hard on yourself

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!


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Try these Vegan Vegetable soups recipe here!


Suggested vegan swaps

Here is just a short list of vegan swaps that you may not know.

Butter
Dairy free butters, such as nut butter (almond, cashew, etc.)

Milk
Same principle as butters

Oils                        
Only vegetable oils (e.g., olive oil, coconut oil, sunflower oil)

Cream                   
Cashew cream for sauces, or full fat coconut (you can whip this) or use it for curries.

Cheese                  
Wide varieties available in supermarkets, or try cashew cheese, similar to mozzarella and good as a ‘gooey’ topping

Meat                      
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.

Eggs                      
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!

Download Breakfast Recipe

Photo: By Antoine Debroye from Beaconsfield, England, UK – Port Louis, CC BY-SA 2.0

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!

Our body and carbohydrates

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”.

The good, the bad and the form of carbohydrates

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!


recipe-creamy-vegan-quinoa-chard-chickpea-soup

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!

Why carbs are our friends

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?

Food for Thought

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.

What about fish?

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

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!

Monterey Jack

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!

Blue cheese

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!

Brie

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.

Gouda

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.

Parmesan (with breadcrumbs)

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!

Image: Creative Commons

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!

Our first day of truffles!

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?

Our second 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!

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.

The spices

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.


recipe-turmeric-chicken-chickpea-soup

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!

Our memorable lunch

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:

Your kitchen tools

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:

Top tips from my favourite chefs

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.


recipe-spicy-vegan-beetroot-soup

Find this  Spicy vegan Beetroot soup recipe here!


The main differences between pickling and fermenting are time, taste and probiotic content.

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.

What equipment do I need?

For pickling:

For fermenting:

Best produce to pickle:

You can pickle most fruits and vegetables, such as:

Best produce to ferment:

Fermented drinks

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.

Summertime in Provence

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!


soupe_au_pistou_recipe

Ready for a taste of Provence?
Try Bev Perkin’s Soupe au Pistou recipe here!


French Markets

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.

Bonne chance!

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!

My favourite spices

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!


recipe-turmeric-chicken-chickpea-soup

Does turmeric whet your appetite?
Find this Turmeric, Chicken and Chickpea soup recipe here!


Cooking with the ‘wives’

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.