Sunday, 28 February 2010

Spring Salad

The Boy is back from a scholarly week oop North and had been virtuously toiling for a great deal more of the morning than is natural for the weekend. A quick, fresh and speedy lunch was required so I threw together some ingredients we had lying around in the fridge and in the larder.

Squash and French Bean salad

You will need: (to feed one famished scholar and a lounging cook)

¼ butternut squash
One baby gem lettuce
½ orange pepper
Fistful of French beans
A few cherry tomatoes
A sprinkle of finely grated parmesan
A touch of nutmeg
Vegetable or olive oil
Salt & pepper

For the dressing:
1 tsp mayonnaise
1 tsp pesto
1 tsp olive oil
2 tsp cider vinegar

Preheat oven to 190C.
- Peel and cut your butternut squash into cubes around 1.5cm.
- Tip into a bowl and add a generous tablespoon of oil, a sprinkle of parmesan and a pinch of nutmeg.
- Get your hands in! Give the squash an even coating and turn out onto a baking tray.
- Season and pop into the oven for fifteen minutes or until starting to crisp.
- Meanwhile, blanch your beans for a few minutes in boiling water.
- Slice the pepper into strips and half the tomatoes and lettuce leaves.
- Remove your beans from the heat when they start to soften, drain and immerse in cold water (this will stop them cooking, keep them nice and green and prevent them from wilting your lettuce).
- Take the squash from the oven and set aside to cool.
- Mix all of the dressing ingredients together and combine with all of the veggies.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Fairtrade Fortnight

Fair-trade verb – a system of trading [while] promoting more equitable global trade, especially to sellers and producers in poorer areas, but also to the environment.

Have you heard? It’s Fairtrade Fortnight! The term ‘fairtrade’ might conjure images of Cuban coffee growers and parched orange earth but fair-trade can extend as far as our merry soils as well. This is less about food and more about people – growers, native traders, community producers. Okay, you might not be able to actually taste the difference when munching on a fairly traded banana but the feel-good factor is definitely tangible. Every year, the Fairtrade Foundation holds two whole weeks of fun to celebrate its growing success; thanks to ethical consumers, around the world, the fair-trade market is currently worth around £800 million! This year, fairtrade fortnight is running from 22nd February until 7th March.

So, are you game? Want to get involved? Check out the official fair-trade website for details on events. If you’re looking for everyday ways to get involved, ask your barista if your morning cappuccino is ground from fair-trade beans. Of course, Starbucks touts itself as a big fair-trade contender but many smaller coffee shops and cafés (like this one in Bristol) offer fairly traded beans.

Keep an eye out at the supermarket, too, for fair-trade items – tea and chocolate are easy to find in most supermarkets but Sainsburys has a truly fab selection of products from sugar to flowers that are ethically produced while the Fairtrade Foundation claims that there are over 4,500 products bearing their mark.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is pushing the Foundation’s ‘Big Swap’ to encourage us to swap our usual weekly favourites with fair-trade options. He’s got some great recipe ideas to inspire you (if you need any further persuation!) too.

Monday, 15 February 2010


...How was it for you? That's Valentines Day sorted for another year. The Boy and I had a lovely day though it reaffirmed to me that Valentines Day is best spent holed away from the rest of the world.

Rather than brave the restaurant scene on this notorious day, which has been disastrous for us in the past, we had a quiet night in. We selected choice ingredients from Waitrose as a treat and opted for a light meal of olives, antipasti and baked camembert to nibble on with crusty bread followed by baked seabass in herb butter on a bed of steamed pak choi. Simple, not too heavy (after our mega day of chocolate eating) and requiring very little preparation, leaving us lots of time for cuddles. Heavenly!

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Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Chocolate Tart

An afternoon of chocolate making. Can you imagine anything much more heavenly? Sadly, we will not be recommending The Chocolate Tart to our friends and family. We weren't entirely sure what to expect, though the Boy was told that the doors would open promptly at 3pm and not before. This rang true as a growing crowd of chocolate lovers grouped on the road outside, clamouring to get in. A rather unwelcoming start, maybe, but I was reserving judgement.

Nether the less, first impressions were good; the class was held in the Tart's obviously recently converted modern kitchen cum office, decked out in the company's signature fushia pink on the walls with cool stainless steel benches to work on. We were offered refreshments and told to don rather unattractive plastic blue aprons. Ah well, I thought, not quite like the photos on the website but at least I won't feel guilty for getting it dirty! Our first task was rather sensual - dipping truffles in silky melted chocolate with our bare hands! We were taught the technique to truffle rolling which seemed to involve no thumbs or little fingers and slathering your palms in chocolate. Wonderful! The Boy and I were gamely chatting to the couple we were sharing our work bench with and generally having a good time at this point.

Next up, we set about choosing flavourings for the fondant to fill moulded chocolates that we would fill later. All sorts of alchemy ensued with various combinations - from the good, Raspberry and Blood Orange, to the down right ugly, Coffee and Tangerine - with varying degrees of success. We companionably swapped and bartered our precious vials of essence - making suggestions and tasting each others concoctions. Chocolate is a definite friend-maker.

So far so good but I've neglected to mention that we had a photographer in our group. Now I wouldn't have minded if it had simply been a well-meaning amateur who wanted to get some tasty photos. This, however, was different. We were introduced to Marko, an obvious friend of the proprietor/teacher, who took pride of place at the front of the class. "No one minds having their picture taken, do they?" she asks, presumptuously. Actually, it might jeopardise my modelling contract. (Joke.) It quickly becomes clear that he's taking publicity shots for the business. This makes me fume on principle - surely it is common courtesy to notify your customers in advance if you're going to be taking photos for your website? You're told if there are going to be fumbling students present at your NHS doctors appointment, for goodness sake! Here we were, having our senses assaulted by periodic bursts from the photographers enthusiastic hot shoe and paying for the privilege (remembering that these classes are not cheap at £70pp for three hours). Not exactly the relaxing, romantic Valentines experience that we'd hoped for.

We came away with around 1 kilo of chocolate each, as promised. But the whole experience left (forgive me!) a rather bitter taste in our mouths. The chocolate and other products was of good quality but it was the actual experience that left us disappointed. The hosts were inhospitable - rushing us between stages and then dropping us completely when we needed guidance. The class was obviously too big; not only was the kitchen crowded and the teachers stretched to breaking point but there was not enough equipment to go around. The afternoon lacked the dynamic, professionalism and prowess that we had been expecting.

In short, try out some chocolate recipes in the comfort of your own home and enjoy the opportunity to relax. Don't bother with The Chocolate Tart.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Valentines Escapades

You may already be aware of my long-standing illicit love affair. Its written all over my face. The addiction, the deep running passion, is clear. Yes, chocolate has been in my life for a long time. The Boy knows this and chose my birthday present accordingly - a day out making the stuff! He knows me too well. In return, I bought him the same for his anniversaire (its only fair to share the love).

Life got in the way and the months have flown by. Its only now that I'm permanently housed that we can book our places. The Boy takes charge and our date is set. And what a date! Valentines Day chocolate making. And what's more, its in the village where I grew up.

I saw an advert in the Metro (my daily rail-time read) which merrily states "If you love her, you'll buy her roses. If you truly love her, you'll buy her M&S roses." The cheek of it! Friends, if you love her, you'll buy her chocolate. Trust.

Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Daily Grind

I'm not a morning person. That's not to say I'm completely and utterly useless in the mornings (though don't ask the Boy; he's biased in these matters). Its simply not in my nature to throw back the covers and spring from the warmth of my bed until, oh, about 10am if I had the choice. I can't help my desire to lounge around, wrapped happily in a snug duvet and hope that someone will bring me a cup of tea. Saying that, since I started my new job, I've been up at 6am during the week and out of the house little after 7am.

Maybe its a good thing that I then step on to a train bound for the city. I use my hour long journey to read, listen to music and generally wake up a bit. My usual train starts the day somewhere in the depths of the West country and gradually winds its way East in the vague hope of hitting London at some point in the day. Because of the length of its epic journey, it has a buffet car (with an enthusiastic "Customer Host" who crys his wears over the tannoy system at regular intervals).

This morning, the carriage is cold. I hadn't noticed until the ever helpful conductor pointed out as she chirpily checked my ticket - morning people, who'd have 'em? - that it was beautifully warm in all but my near-arctic coach. Up until that point, I'd been happily knitting away none the wiser to the freezing temperatures that my extremities were being subjected to.

Not long after, someone entered with a steaming mug clutched in their finger tips. The smell of roasted coffee beans seeped into my sleep soaked, cold assaulted senses and filled the carriage. Now, despite my anti-Starbucks nature (actually maybe the two are linked), I love coffee. I adore the taste - softened with milk or cream, sweetly rich with demerara sugar, whipped into a cake or straight up as an espresso. Mmm. The smell does wicked things to me too. Even the colour appeals. I tend to adstain from a regular coffee habit for two reasons: a) the Boy hates it and b) it plays havoc with my skin. I am sorely tempted right now though.

The Metro told me yesterday that coffee prices have plummeted so if you're a regular par-taker in this glorious beverage, you can be happy that your habit will cost you less from now on. Don't get used to it though - droughts will push the price right up again soon so make the most of it.

As for me, I have two choices. Move carriages to remove myself from temptation or befriend my fellow passenger...

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Wednesday, 10 February 2010


You can imagine that, after a hard days work and a long commute (think, finish at 5pm, arrive home at 7pm), the last thing I want to do is to cook a delicious, healthy, nutritionally balanced meal. The trouble is, I don't want to resort to ready meals or anything near that elk either. Now, the Boy is very good, I must admit. He often cooks and has something ready for me when I get home - yes, he is somewhat perfect and no, you can't have him - but alas, my chef is working long hours of late. So my solution has been to prepare things in advance. It takes a little organisation but its well worth it. Tonights concoction was a simple Beef Stroganoff. It can bubble away happily while you get on with life and keeps for ages as well as freezing well.

Simple Strog

Ingredients: (enough for four)
350g stewing beef (as lean as possible)
1 large onion
a tab of butter
275ml red wine
200g mushrooms (sliced)
1tbsp wholegrain mustard
a little grated nutmeg
200ml half fat creme fraíche

- Melt the butter in a casserole dish or deep saucepan and gently fry the onions until golden
- Trim of any fat and cut the meat into 5mm strips (length, for once, is not important so go with your instincts)
- Remove onions from pan and brown the meat on a high heat
- Put the onions back in the pan with the beef, season and add the wine and mustard
- Allow to simmer gently for around one hour, stirring every so often
- Add the mushrooms and cook on a low heat for another thirty minutes
- Allow to cool slightly* then stir in creme fraíche and a touch of nutmeg

Serve with:
Rice or a jacket potato and fresh veg

Delia does something very similar with white wine or, she suggests, dry cider.
*at this point, you can leave it to cool completely if you're going to store it. Simply stir in the creme fraíche before heating very gently then serve when you're ready.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook

I've been luck enough to receive lots of cookery books for Christmas and birthdays. Good cook books are obviously great, an asset to your culinary shelf, but it can be quite difficult to judge a book by its cover. So I'm going to start reviewing the volumes in my bookcase. A foodie book club, maybe.

This week, we turn the cover on The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook. Stars of the cake scene in London, hype about this cute little bakery has reached fever pitch. But do their recipes live up to their reputation?

The Book: a nice collection of baking recipes, both sweet and savoury interspersed with sumptuous glossy photos.
Positives: lots of delicious sweet things perfect for special occasions
Negatives: assumes you have a food mixer or electric whisk at your disposal.

Recipe tried: Chocolate Cup Cake and Chocolate "frosting"

These were made to celebrate a colleague's birthday and were absolutely raved about. Highly recommended indeed. One day, when I have time, I'll post the amended instructions for the other meer mortals out there that don't possess a food mixer.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Change a-foot

You walk in from the cold, wet street, breathing in the familiar smell as you flap your umbrella and step over the threshold. Immediately, you feel happier and calmer. Maybe its the warmth combined with the soft, gentle lighting or the friendly smile you receive as you enter. Either way, you feel your mood lift ever so slightly as you enter. Approaching the counter, you pause; weighing up the options, waiting to see what takes your fancy. You order and take your concoction from the wooden bar top to a round leather topped coffee table. Your seat is a comfy grass green velvet armchair that welcomes you into its plush cushions. You settle yourself, sigh contentedly and sip at your coffee through the mountain of whipped cream that comes as standard.

Up until recently, this could have been used to describe any of the hundreds of generic Starbucks stores across the UK. In fact, possibly the world! But things are set to change on a street near you. Now, I'm not the biggest Starbucks fan, I'm the first to admit. It's not like I've got a personal vendetta against them as a concept but more their approach. I hate the way they have infected towns and cities the length and breadth of the country. Nowhere is safe from their identi-kit coffee shops and ominous green logo. Even our out of town supermarkets have fallen to the Starbucks trend - out on the front line of family food, you can now buy Starbucks branded coffee beans with your weekly shop. My real bug bare is that they've been driving independent cafés out of business for years. Consumes lean towards the familiar so more often than not, they will go for the household name rather than the wildcard. Variety is the spice of life, my friends!

So why am I taking interest now, you might ask. Well, Starbucks are clever. Design-wise, their stores are fitted out to be appealing. Soft relaxing lighting, warm earthly colours and trendy downbeat music; it appeals to us on a base level while the slightly kooky but quality furniture makes us feel like its a cool place to be. You could walk into pretty much any Starbucks across its worldwide fleet and it will have the same furniture, same light-fittings, identical floor to ceiling wall 'painting' (actually a sticky-backed plastic transfer). This makes sense on all business levels; their corporate identity is controlled and strictly regimented while also allowing them to buy everything in bulk - very cost effective.

But the winds of change are starting to blow. Starbucks have weathered the economic storm and times haven't been quite so sunny in the land of the latte. The recession and closure of the Borders bookshop chain (where Starbucks had nearly 40 outlets) hit them hard leading to their decision to close approximately 900 stores worldwide. Only a few weeks ago, however, Starbucks announced earnings in the region of £149m. More interestingly (to me, anyway!) was the news of their new program for development in 2010. A visit to their new Conduit Street café in London tells of a different Starbucks to hit the cappuccino-supping streets. It's interior is distinctive, an individual café to fit in with the surrounding atmosphere and context. What's more, the chain plans to make-over a further 100 stores nationwide over the coming year. Schultz, the brands founder, says that the new look outlets will be "a reflection of realising that the relationship we want to have with our customers should harken back to a sense of community, [a] unique store environment." As I said, variety is the spice of life! Watch this space.
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