I have recently decided to jump on the gluten-free bandwagon. Going ‘gf’ seems to be all the rage at the moment. I feel sorry for people who genuinely are coeliac, as there seems to be a surge in people suddenly and miraculously developing a gluten ‘intolerance’ overnight. Consequently, I’ve found that telling people you don’t eat gluten is often met with an eye roll and an accusatory ‘yes but you’re not actually allergic, are you’.
Anyway, I thought I’d give it a go, as I’ve heard so many positive accounts of what avoiding gluten can do. The first hurdle was baking. I made some relatively successful gluten free (and dairy free, just to give myself a challenge) cookies, using rice flour and coconut oil. So next I thought I’d try a cake. Lemon polenta cake is one of the easiest things to make gluten free, as the polenta acts as a good substitute for the flour, and gives the cake a pleasant grainy texture. I topped the cake with some ricotta whisked with honey, and scattered over some blueberries.
Cauliflower has never held much of an appeal for me: the boiled, bland florets often taste of nothing much. But Ottolenghi, the God that he is, has revolutionized the vegetable for me via the simple suggestion of roasting it. The gently charred edges give the cauliflower a delicious smokiness that makes them take on a completely different taste than when they’re cooked in any other way. Ottolenghi combines roasted cauliflower with pomegranate seeds, celery and all manner of interesting embellishments in his salads, but I’ve gone for a more simple approach.
Romanesco is the Italian cousin of the common cauliflower, yet much more exciting. It’s vibrant green spikes mean that it barely looks edible, but is in fact delicious. This is a laughably simple recipe. Given the Italian origin of Romanesco, I stuck to a broadly Italian theme, combining it with punchy garlic, lemon and crunchy hazelnuts. The garlic and lemon are added at the end, letting the heat of the roasting tin cook them slightly, but not too much, so they retain a bit of a punch.
1 head of Romanesco cauliflower
60g whole hazelnuts
1 clove of garlic, crushed
Juice and zest of half a lemon
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 180C. Divide the Romanesco into florets and put in a roasting dish. Drizzle over 1 tbsp olive oil, a splash of water and some salt and pepper. Roast for half an hour. Put the whole hazelnuts onto a baking sheet and toast in the top shelf of the oven for 8 minutes, until the skins are starting to crack and peel away. Rub off the skins by rolling the nuts in a clean tea towel. Roughly crush them in a pestle and mortar, then mix into the cauliflower. Whisk together the lemon juice and zest and crushed garlic with the remaining 1 tbsp olive oil. Pour over the cauliflower and stir, allowing the heat of the roasting tin to cook the garlic slightly.
I have just got back from a very spontaneous trip to Portugal. So spontaneous that I didn’t know I was going until about three days before I went. One of the nice things about this is that it avoids all the pre-holiday anticipation, which inevitably peaks just before you go, leaving the actual arrival slightly anti-climactic. In this case, I was boarding the plane from a satisfyingly rainy Bristol before I knew it.
Usually, I at least try and learn a few words of the language before I go abroad – as it irritates me when some British people insist on speaking English everywhere (‘ham, egg and chips please, mate’) without the slightest consideration of the local culture. Not having time to learn much Portuguese beforehand, I had to hastily cram in the essentials on the plane ride over. ‘Por favor’, ‘Obrigada’, and ‘Desculpe’ (please, thank you and sorry) seemed to suffice in most situations.
We stayed on a beach hut, actually on the beach (they weren’t lying), which was a mere five minutes drive from Faro Airport. The beach is essentially an island in itself, separated from the mainland by a bridge, and contains a smattering of restaurants, one shop, and lots of beach huts dotted along it. It seemed to be a top spot for kite-surfing (you can just about see them in the bottom picture) so we had a very impressive display at just about Prosecco time every evening. We found a particularly good beach café bar, that was so good we returned every day. One of the main reasons for our frequent visits was the ‘gambas’: shell- on prawns swimming in fiery olive oil. They are always accompanied by mountains of bread, which increased in quality with each of our visits, to dunk in the bright red oil.
So the minute I got back, suffering twinges of withdrawal from not having had gambas in over twelve hours, I set about recreating them. I had bought back some chilli oil (piri-piri, just like in Nando’s, although slightly more authentic) and some peppery olive oil. I got some raw prawns from the local fishmonger and I was good to go. Using raw prawns definitely helps, although I find them slightly intimidating, as they produce a lovely juice that mingles with the olive oil. Not quite the same as when eaten on a Portuguese beach, but they’re still pretty delicious.
Food is my main motivator for travel. That, and taking photos: of the scenery as well as the food. The thing that excited me most about my trip to South-East Asia and Australia last year was the different tastes that awaited me in the five countries. From paad thai on the streets of Bangkok via smoked duck in Singapore to kangaroo in Adelaide, South Australia, it was a pretty epic range of tastes. One of my favourite destinations in terms of food has to be Italy. Italian food is so much more than just pizza and pasta – although the pizza and pasta are, usually, excellent.
I first had farro in Florence, in a tiny café nestled somewhere in the city’s ochre-coloured, labyrinthine streets. We took refuge from the baking hot sun in the middle of the day, and had several platefuls of a very memorable salad: farro with cherry tomatoes, basil and mozzarella. When I first tried it, I thought the mysterious grain was simply pearl barley, but that for some reason it tasted so much better than the dowdy English variety. Farro is in fact Italian pearled spelt, very similar to pearl barley but with a nuttier taste which makes it altogether more likeable. It’s great cold, in refreshing salads, or warm, with unctuous layers of tomato sauce poured over it.
It seems I’m not the only one who is a fan of farro: there was an Ottolenghi recipe in Waitrose Magazine this month for grilled lettuce with farro and lemon. Here, in keeping with Italian simplicity, I decided to combine my new favourite grain with some chicken baked with lemon, and some gently fried courgettes. A spray of roughly chopped parsley and an extra squeeze of lemon finished it off. This dish could work as well warm as cold – more suitable for lunch cold and dinner hot, maybe. But for the purposes of needing good midday light for the photos, I had it warm for lunch, rendering that previous claim somewhat redundant.
I’m going a little canapé mad at the moment, what with all the festive parties. These were inspired by some lovely canapés that the chef at work made for our Christmas party, which were wolfed down in seconds. Canapés can be, to my mind, the most exciting part of a meal – when you’re starving hungry they tease you with what’s about to come.
I made these for a New Year dinner party. The party had eleven guests (and five courses if you count the canapés) so I ended up making three different sorts, totaling around sixty. By the end of meticulously balancing tiny bits of fennel on top of minuscule dollops of crème fraiche, I was going slightly cross-eyed, and had lost count of how many I’d made. I also assembled grated beetroot, pesto and pancetta on circles of toast, and smoked salmon, cucumber and mustard mayonnaise on more blinis.
Blinis are small Russian yeasted pancakes (a bit like tiny crumpets) that are traditionally used as a vehicle for smoked salmon and caviar. But they work well with a variety of toppings, such as here with silky crème fraiche and crunchy fennel. Blinis take a couple of hours to make, as the batter needs to be left to rise, but they can easily be make a day in advance and kept in an airtight container.
The trick to a good canapé, I think, is to get a good mixture of contrasting textures and colours that work well together. This canapé would have looked and tasted a bit bland if it were not for the little segment of orange, and some bright green fennel fronds placed on top – at which point I almost resorted to using tweezers.
Since I have been living at home after finishing my degree, the state of our overstuffed freezer has become a source of great irritation. My mum insists on keeping enough food to last us for about 3 months, incase of being snowed in/car breaking down/zombie apocalypse. It’s got to the point where I can’t even use the freezer for its only useful purpose (storing ice cream) because it won’t fit.
I go on periodic freezer clearing missions, which involve getting angry and defrosting random things that I somehow think I’m going to use (cranberry sauce, filo pastry, a piece of cake from the nineties).
During one such mission, I came across some blackcurrants, probably dating from somewhere around my 10th birthday. So I decided to use them to make blackcurrant compote (jam, basically) to go on top of lemon possets.
Despite its intimidating medieval English name, a lemon posset is a laughably easy pudding to make. Containing only three ingredients – lemon juice, cream and sugar- it can be whipped up in a matter of minutes and left in the fridge to set.