Thursday, 6 September 2012

Banana oat muffins

Sometimes, the need for something sweet just cannot be avoided. I try to side step it; dodge the craving for doughnuts, persuade myself that a juicy apple will satisfy my craving, but that only works for so long.

You might just give in and snarf down a cookie or two but if you’d like something that’s delicious and a little bit healthier too, this is the recipe for you. These muffins are packed full of slow release oat energy, calcium and all the goodness of bananas. Although they’re chock full of bananas, it’s not an obvious flavour if you’re not they’re biggest fan. They’re just sweet enough, with a touch of honey in the mix, to sate your appetite for cake. If you're sensitive to gluten or coelic, choose gluten free oats which are available in most large supermarkets.

I’ve made them for breakfast and they’ve proved to be a very popular treat but they can be dressed up any way you like. I’ve kept them plain in my original recipe but you can add all sorts; dark chocolate chips or walnut pieces would be divine. Boost their fibre and mineral content with seeds in the batter or sprinkled on top. You can substitute the oats with wholegrain flour or ground almonds if the mood takes you.

On a practical note, beware as these are very sticky as they bake. Use a lightly oiled muffin pan without paper cases otherwise you’ll end up with lots of yummy muffins that you can’t get out of the cases. You can also use lightly oiled silicon cake cases, which work really well too.

Banana oat muffins Makes 6

125g (gluten free) porridge oats
140g low fat yoghurt/fromage frais
1 egg
2tbsp honey
1tsp baking powder
1 banana, mashed
1tsp cinnamon (optional)

 - Preheat the oven to 200C and use a dab of oil to grease a muffin tin or silicon cupcake moulds.
 - Beat the egg, honey and the banana together until combined then stir in the remaining ingredients. Alternatively, place all the ingredients in a blender and whizz until smooth.
 - Divide the batter between cups and bake for 20 - 25 minutes or until dark brown (the colour of over-ripe banana skin!) and springy to the touch.
 - Serve plain or split with a little butter.

Don't like oats? Substitute for wholegrain flour or ground almonds.
Too plain? Add dark chocolate chips and walnut pieces. Or dried fruit and your choice of seeds.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Review: Le Mercury, Islington, London

Simple, affordable food can be found at Le Mercury, a lovely no-frills French bistro in Islington. My sister, who has recently returned from a year of study in Copenhagen, was in town and we were keen to get some tasty grub that would satisfy without breaking the bank.

We window-shopped our way along Upper Street; Le Mercury is virtually equidistant from Angel and Highbury & Islington stations, which makes is pretty well connected. We wandered in for a late Saturday lunch to find the dining room busy but we were quickly welcomed and shown to a table.

The setting was ideal for a casual lunch as the surroundings were rustic and unpretentious while the service was prompt and friendly. The menu is simple with a fixed price for starters, mains and desserts, though there are a few seasonal specials that buck this trend. There were about eight options for both starters and main courses - plus one or two specials - which reflected the establishment’s French roots.

Our starters arrived promptly. The beef carpaccio was peppery and tender which was complimented beautifully by the rocket salad that it came with. The portion was ideal for whetting my appetite for the rest of the meal. My sister’s chévre salad was a generous slice of grilled goats cheese on a round of baguette with plenty of salad and lashings of nutty pesto. We found it very hard to decide what to have – I’ll have to return for the poached pears with walnuts and blue cheese.

As our empty plates had been whisked away, our mains arrived. The grilled duck breast was beautifully cooked; barely a hint of pinkness lingering in the meat with plenty of moisture still in the meat. I would have liked it to served slightly rare and would specify this next time. The accompaniments of finely sliced cabbage, garlic mash and delicious jus made for an extremely filling meal. No faults to mention on the roast saddle of lamb either – the meat was tender and juicy. It was served with grilled courgettes which provided a nice contrast.

Le Mercury would be ideal for a slap up family meal or get together with friends. The prompt, unobtrusive service could make it a winner for a quiet dinner date too. We enjoyed two courses for around £12 a head (though we didn’t peruse the wine list) so it provides great value as well as quality.

Le Mercury can be found at 140 Upper Street, Islington, London, N1 1QY Tel: 020 7354 4088. Starters: £3.95. Main meals: £8.95. Dessert: £2.95. Nearest Tube: Angel and Highbury & Islington.

Looking for other options in Islington? Find out more about Ottolenghi's fantastic salads and baked goods to take away or The Castle's tasty pub gruff and great bar.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Chocolate covered coconut macaroons

The world is going mad for macarons, the multi-coloured garish almond based meringue confections popular for afternoon tea around the world. Since I started working in London, I've seen swathes of tourists clutching pastel paper bags from the likes of Laduree. They're not the kind of thing that you find in Somerset! 

I'm partial to the odd macaron; they're cute, (dare I say) girlie and wonderfully bite-sized. However, they are a bit of a pig to bake. Achieving that light and fluffy texture is rather unpredictable, much like the somewhat troublesome meringue. If you're in need of a tasty sweet snack, maybe it would be better to by-pass the chichi and look a little closer to home. 

Macaroons (note the double 'o') are easy to throw together and provide the same deliciously sweet hit without the kitchen faff. According to the wonder that is Wikipedia, English macaroons and French macarons share the same Italian word maccarone or maccherone which derives from ammaccare meaning to crush or beat. Don't run away in horror; this refers to the crushed nuts that are the main ingredient of both recipes. Both are cousins of amaretti, the crunchy Italian almond biscuit. It's a very European affair.

I adore this recipe because it really is so simple. Bung the ingredients together, shape and pop in the oven. Decoration is optional but I like any excuse to mess around with chocolate. I've made these several times and they're an ideal mid-week bake because they're quick and easy to make out of ingredients that tend to lurk in the back of the larder. Oh and they're naturally gluten free too! 

Coconut macaroons
Makes 16 – 20

2 egg whites
300g unsweetened grated coconut (or the same of desiccated coconut)
3 tbsp runny honey (omit if using desiccated coconut)

To decorate
150g dark chocolate
10 glacé cherries (optional)

 - Preheat oven to 180C and line a baking tray with a silicon or greaseproof paper.
 - Whisk together the egg whites and honey (if using).
 - Add the coconut and stir until coated.
 - Scoop out tablespoon dollops of mixture, compact slightly and evenly space on baking tray.
 - Bake for 10 – 12 minutes or until golden brown.
 - Remove to a wire rack and allow to cool.
 - Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of boiling water.
 - Meanwhile, halve the cherries so that they’re ready to garnish.
 - Dip the flat base of each macaroon into the chocolate and place on a tray covered in silicon or greaseproof paper. If you want a particularly luxurious macaroon, allow these to cool and dip again.
 - Drizzle the top of the macaroons with melted chocolate and garnish with a half cherry, dipped in a little chocolate to act as glue.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Broccoli & Feta Potato bake

What a grim day! What happened to (the increasingly lesser spotted) Summer season? I'm certain that I haven't slept through it because I'm definitely not that well rested. Regrettably.

To banish the rainy day blues, I've been tucking into satisfying summer comfort food. This one pot meal is a great way to use up that tired looking bag of potatoes that's been hanging around for a bit too long. You could also use leftover boiled potatoes (skip the par-boiling if they've already been cooked or you'll end up with mush!) so it can be a super thrify meal too. I'm partial to a little ham or bacon thrown in but it's also delicious without if you're going meatless.

You might not have tried roasted broccoli before now but I think this will convert you. It brings out a sweet earthy flavour that shows off the little green trees at their best. Coupled with the mushrooms, you'll have a lovely rich mouthful. Don't forget a sprinkling of feta to cut through the warmth and give it a summery taste.
Broccoli & Feta Potato bake

Serves 4

300g new potatoes (or leftover cooked potatoes)
1 large head of broccoli
100g mushrooms, cleaned
handful of spring onions, sliced
50g ham or cooked bacon, roughly chopped (optional)
50g curly kale, storks removed and sliced
4 – 6 cloves of garlic, peeled
120g feta cheese, crumbled
2 tbsp (gluten free) soy sauce

- Preheat the oven to 180C. Add a drizzle of oil to a large roasting tray and pop into the oven to warm up.
- Boil the kettle while you half or (if they’re big ‘uns) thickly slice the potatoes.
- Prepare the broccoli. Cut bite-sized florets from the main stem, halving any trees that are too big. Cut the stem into chunks.
- Simmer the potatoes (if they need cooking) and broccoli stem for five minutes or until just tender. Throw in the spring onions so that they get a few moments in the hot water then drain the whole lot.
- Remove the roasting tray from the oven and add the potatoes, broccoli stems and spring onions – stand back as they may spit. Move them around in the hot oil so that they are nicely coated and start to colour in places.
- Add the broccoli florets, mushrooms and garlic to the roasting tin and then shove back into the oven for 30 minutes or until the broccoli starting to go a tawny golden colour and is cooked to your liking. I like it with a little bite left in it but this is up to you.
- Meanwhile, boil the kale for 4 minutes or microwave for around 3 minutes until just cooked.
- Remove the tin from the oven. Add the ham/bacon, kale and half of the feta before stirring and putting it back in the oven for 10 minutes.
- Serve generously heaped on plates and covered in the remaining feta cheese.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Summery chicken stew

The Boy and I have spent a glorious week touring the country to see friends and family. Naturally, our trips tend to revolve around food. We’ve barbecued near Bristol, sipped cider on the Cam (bringing a little bit of Somerset to Cambridge!) and noshed on marshmallows on a narrow boat.

Summer signals a flurry of activity for most people – time to make hay while the sun shines. If it’s raining – or if you’re busy dashing about doing a myriad of things simultaneously – you might like to come in after a long day to a bowl of stew.

This creamy chicken stew is light and fresh enough to suit a warm (if damp) summers day. As with all of my recipes, it’s easy and rather forgiving; you can leave it bubbling away on the stove (or in the oven – a similar amount of time at 180C should do the trick) while you go about your business. And, as long as you take care to ensure that it doesn’t boil dry, it won’t be ruined if you accidentally forget about it while you’re taking on the world.

This is a great recipe to have up your sleeve as a versatile and tasty dish. Although I’ve suggested kale, carrots and peas, you could throw in any vegetables that are in season and need using up. Asparagus works well if chucked in at the same time as the kale. In fact, you needed use kale – finely sliced cabbage, greens or spinach would work equally as well. An ideal one-pot supper to cut down on washing up without compromising on taste!

With all of the vegetables and light stock, this is a deliciously healthy meal. I would recommend using Quark instead of cream. It might sound like a Star Trek character but it’s actually a virtually fat free mild cheese that tastes lovely and creamy without being high in calories.

Summer Chicken Stew
Serves 4 – 6

6 chicken thighs, skin on
3 shallots or small onions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
4 carrots, sliced
½ chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
50g dried apricots, chopped
700ml chicken stock/water
300ml white wine/cider
50g curly kale, stalks removed and sliced
1 tbsp dried tarragon
100g quark or 100ml single cream
50g peas, ideally fresh from the pod but frozen is fine

- Add a drizzle of oil to a pan large enough to take all of the chicken pieces and vegetables with plenty of space over a high heat. Brown the chicken in batches, placing them skin side down for a few minutes and once golden brown, turn over. Remove from the pan.
- Brown the onion for ten minutes until golden brown and soft. Remove and set aside.
- Deglaze the pan with wine/cider; pour in the liquid and scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon or spatula to remove all of the cooked on flavour.
- Add the chicken and onions to the pan with the garlic, carrots, chilli, tarragon and apricots then cover with stock/water. Top up with boiling water if needed until everything is covered.
- Put a lid on the pan and turn the head down to a gentle simmer. Cook for 30 – 40 minutes until the carrots are tender and the chicken is cooked through.
- Remove from the heat and skin off a cup of the cooking liquor. Set aside to cool while you stir in the kale so that it is submerged in the liquid. The residual heat will cool it nicely.
- Meanwhile, whisk the quark or cream into the cooking liquor until smooth and lump-free. Add this back into the pan, along with the peas and stir through.
- Serve with jacket potatoes, boiled jersey royals or rice.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Low Fat Berry Banana Muffins

As the long weekend approaches, you might be on the lookout for delicious recipes. If we can’t rely on the weather, we might as well ensure that we have tasty things to eat. Whether you’re in need of something for a Jubilee street party or searching of a healthy breakfast treat, this easy muffin recipe is versatile and a great way to get a portion of fruit.

This recipe is low in fat and isn’t as sweet as the processed versions that you’ll find in coffee shops and supermarkets. It’s a great way to use up those forlorn overripe bananas too! The bananas help to keep the muffins nicely moist but don’t provide an overwhelming banana flavour which means that you can chop and change the flavour combinations.

I filled mine with cheap frozen mixed berries from the supermarket but you can add any that you fancy. Go for classic blueberry muffins or add half cherries and half almonds for a summery, seasonal twist.

I think I’ll be packing a few for a weekend bike ride for a little slow release energy!

Berry-nana muffins
Yields 12 muffins

150g whole grain flour
150g self-raising flour
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
100g light muscovado sugar
50g porridge oats, with a little more for garnishing
2 medium bananas, peeled and mashed
300ml low fat yoghurt
5 tbsp sunflower oil
2 egg whites
300g fresh or frozen berries

- Preheat the oven to 180c.
- Line a 12 hole muffin tin with paper muffin cases or squares of greaseproof paper (mine were approximately 10cm x 10cm).
- Mix the flours, bicarbonate of soda, sugar and oats together.
- In a separate bowl, combine the mashed banana, yoghurt, oil and egg.
- Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the liquid mixture. Stir quickly but gently to bring everything together. Don’t panic if the batter looks a little lumpy.
- Gently fold in the berries and divide between the muffin cases, sprinkling each one with a little oats.
- Bake for 18 – 20 minutes until golden brown.

Looking for a way to use up those unwanted egg yolks? Why not make mayonnaise for your weekend barbecues and sandwiches?

Friday, 18 May 2012

Barbecued butterflied salmon

The Boy has always said "Never trust a thin chef" and he seems to follow a similar logic for bushmen. Since I got to know him, I know that I've been wrestling with a rather hefty draw for his affections. He totally loves Ray Mears. His logic is that Ray, with his generous waist line, is not simply surviving in the wilderness but properly living.

His high regard for the portly master of the wilderness extends to his cooking skills. Our feeding-of-the-many-people gave him the ideal opportunity to try out some Mear-esque catering. Our lovely friends at Cronkshaw Fold provided us with a mammoth (whale-like) salmon which inspired The Boy to try out a butterfly technique that he’d seen Ray demonstrate.

After removing the fins and scoring around the head, he gently plied the bones away from the flesh and – voila! – a perfectly butterflied salmon. He then laid it out on the barbecue grill until the skin was satisfyingly crispy and the flesh was meltingly soft and juicy. It had taken on a deep smokey flavour which was incredibly moreish. We served it as it was with no accompaniment as a sort of starter before a vat of risotto was dished out.

It was pretty simple so I think this will become a regular dish at summer barbecues when the weather makes up its mind. I don’t know about you but I don’t think of fish when I think of goodies to slap on the grill. Sausages, for sure. Burgers, defo. Halloumi, my goodness yes. I might do a few prawn kebabs but nothing more adventurous than that. There must be good recipes out there! What are your fish recipes for the barbecue?

Butterflied barbecued salmon

You will need:
one whole salmon (ideally gutted and scaled by your fishmonger unless you're hardcore like Ray)
one sharp knfe

- If the fish is fresh from the water, scale it and remove the guts and innards.
- Remove the fins from the belly of the fish.
- Slice just behind the gills; this will help you when you remove the head later.
- Remove the dorsal fin by running the knife along the top of the fish.
- With the fish belly up, run your thumbs along the length of the spine between the skin and the ribs to ease the bones away from the flesh. Do this on both sides and pull out the head, spine and bones in one piece.
- Lay the fish skin side down on a hot barbecue and cook until the skin is charred. If the fish is particularly fleshy and thick, cover it with foil to help cook the otherside.
- Briefly turn the fish over to add some colour to the flesh before serving.
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