Even though I’ve almost lived in Bristol for a year now, I’ve only recently discovered that I live a mere 10 minutes’ drive away from Ikea. I used to make pilgrimages up from Devon to visit this place. I would always come back with a car-load of stuff that I didn’t really need and couldn’t quite remember buying, but that somehow felt completely necessary at the time. Upon hearing that my friend Nicola had never been to Ikea, I was dumbfounded. What, like, never? No. So the fact was that we had to go, and soon. I was trying to describe to her what was so good about it, using a series of vague gestures and half sentences. It’s a shop, yes. But so much more. You can buy furniture. And carpets and plants and photo frames. And then there’s the meatballs.
When visiting Ikea, I always endeavor to make a list and stick to it, but usually completely fail in the latter, and that’s if I remember to bring my list in the first place. I’m completely swayed by the cute Swedish names – it may be a boring curtain ring, but it’s called ‘Syrlig’, so naturally I have to buy it. The item at the top of my list was ‘clip-top jars’. I was shoving about ten into the (appropriately massive) trolley, to incredulous looks from Nicola, mumbling the words ‘dacanting’, ‘lentils’ and ‘useful’ as vague excuses. And they’re only 80p each – I think I sneaked in an extra two at the end for this reason alone. When I got my haul of jars home, I discovered that, despite stocking up on cashew nuts and cous-cous to have something to decant into my new jars, I still had a few spare. So, preserved lemons it is.
Preserved lemons are a staple ingredient in Moroccan cooking, especially in tagines and fish dishes. I was always a bit skeptical about their necessity (surely fresh lemons would do the trick just as well, right?) but once I tried the preserved variety I could see what all the fuss was about. The lemons are salted then packed into jars, covered with olive oil and left to do their thing for a few weeks. This renders the outer skin soft, and mutes the sharp acidic tang. They can be eaten, if you wish, straight from the jar. Whilst the lemons are preserving away for a week or so, Paris and I will be busy dreaming up ways to use them. Watch this space!
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.
Well, how do I begin to describe my love for pesto? The smell of the basil, the slight grittiness of the parmesan, the smoky creaminess of the toasted pine nuts. It seems such a miraculous harmony of delicious ingredients. I would go as far to say it’s my favourite food. Savoury food that is – my favourite pudding is a whole other (lengthy) conversation.
I make pesto relatively regularly, and yet this is the first time I’ve actually measured the ingredients before throwing them in. Usually I just add things bit by bit until it tastes like it has the right balance – and I always need to make more than I need because all of these ‘tastes’ are, inevitably, large spoonfuls. This meal, of pasta with pesto and pancetta (or bacon), is both my default comfort food and my default quick, easy yet impressive dinner party food.
As I was taking photos of a dish so dear to my heart, I decided to trawl the local charity shops to find a suitable plate on which to show if off. I found this retro, fluted triumph at a very unassuming charity shop for a very reasonable £1.50. It’s the sort of plate that would have once been a proud member of a set to grace a dinner table back in the day, but now has been discarded in favour of more minimal, neutral patterns. However, it works perfectly for this dish, as the red patterning complements the bright green of the pesto.
One of my stocking fillers this year was an empty glass bottle with the words ‘Home-infused Olive Oil’ on it. Right, better get to it then. I decided to use the classic combination of punchy raw garlic and fragrant rosemary. The scent of rosemary is evocative, for me, of childhood summers spent running around the garden, pulling up reams of herbs and flowers in a very destructive manner.
The herb pot outside the back door has been stripped of its overflowing summer bounty by the inclement weather. However, the woody rosemary clings stubbornly on, its tough stems bracing against the fierce winter wind. I plucked the reluctant leaves from the plant, gave them a wash and squeezed them to release their aroma.
This is only one possible ‘infusion’- I have also tried chilli oil, where one or two (depending on your spice threshold) dried chillis are added to the oil. You could also try another herb, such as basil, oregano or thyme. The oil is best if left for at least a day to let the flavours infuse. As it is used, keep topping up with more oil, giving it a good shake, and it might even last until next Christmas.
At the risk of sounding very middle class, I have to confess that we have a gardener. A gardener who grows broad beans, strawberries and tomatoes in large numbers. Depending on the time of year, he brings over bucketfuls of whichever one he has surplus. So now we are in to tomato season, albeit a polytunnel-induced one.
The wonderful little red and yellow cherry tomatoes are amazingly sweet and always disappear quickly. They have the same addictive qualities as grapes – that is, they are sweet, juicy and there are lots of them. As lovely as they are fresh, I wanted some way of making them last for longer.
So as I was pondering (a terribly middle class word) what to do with them, I stumbled upon a recipe for drying tomatoes in the oven. Even though oven-dried tomatoes are the less poetic cousin to sun-dried tomatoes, I hope the effect will be the same.
I found this recipe in a wonderful cookbook called Salt, Sugar, Smoke by Diana Henry, all about preserving fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. This recipe was in the ‘under oil’ chapter, along with such mouthwatering things as spiced feta in olive oil and Persian marinated olives. I’ve adapted the recipe slightly, as I am using cherry tomatoes, and I opted to keep the tomatoes in just oil, rather than oil and vinegar, as I didn’t think (correctly) that they would stick around for four weeks.
When browsing on one of the many food blogs I follow, I came across a suggestion that the only way to really smooth hummus is to peel the chickpeas. That’s right PEEL the chickpeas. Your first reaction, as mine was, might well be that life’s too short. I even considered just putting in the recipe that you should peel the chickpeas, but chucking them in whole myself. But then, I guess that would be cheating.
So peel them I did (I’ve included a picture of my beautifully peeled chickpeas as proof of my efforts). You can actually get quite into the rhythm of squeezing the chickpeas and popping them out of their skins – although don’t do it when you’re in a rush, or you’ll probably just give up and bung them in whole.
This is not only the first time I’ve peeled chickpeas when making hummus, it’s also the first time I’ve measured all the ingredients – usually I just blend random amounts until it looks about right. I’ve made a few amendments to the basic hummus recipe of chickpeas, tahini (sesame seed paste) and olive oil, to make the result slightly more interesting. I’ve added roasted garlic and honey for sweetness, and wine wine vinegar for a bit of a kick.
I knocked up a batch of olive oil crackers to serve with the hummus. They are sprinkled with Nigella seeds – which, by the way, are also called kalonji black onion seeds. They are nothing whatsoever to do with Nigella Lawson, although she likes to pretend they are.
I frequently like to play a game with myself along the lines of desert-island discs called desert-island meals. Disregarding all notions of nutrition/what would help you survive on said island, fresh pasta would have to be on the list (along with pesto, chocolate mousse, and some sort of salad to keep Mum happy). Realistically, it would be the last thing I would want to eat if being marooned on an island did actually happen. Not to mention the unlikelihood of having a convenient pasta maker to hand. But, logistics aside, it really is something that I would be happy to eat until the end of my days.
Fresh pasta is a different thing entirely from dried pasta. Yes, it is a bit of an effort to make – the mixing, kneading, resting, rolling takes time – but I’m always convinced that it’s worth it in the end. A pasta maker is pretty much a necessity to get the dough thin enough – I tried it once with just a rolling pin, and it was disappointingly thick and chewy. You need reinforcements in the form of willing volunteers to help coax the pasta through the rollers. I had three helpers to hold the ever-lengthening sheet of dough. If you are Italian, maybe you can do it single-handedly, but this would be quite a feat.
I sometimes serve the pasta with homemade pesto, but it really doesn’t need much embellishment. This time I went for parmesan, olive oil, salt, pepper and a few basil leaves. A green salad was meant to be an accompaniment, but having got so involved with making the pasta I completely forgot about it, so we had a salad course afterwards.