Date night – Oxtail ragu

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Though I find it almost impossible to believe, this weekend just past marks four months since I arrived in Boston. Tempting though it is to break out all kinds of clichés – how time flies, etc – what I am most struck by is how right it feels to be here. Of course, it hasn’t all been easy – I’m now approaching my fifth month of unemployment, and even though it was my choice and if I had to make it again I would do exactly the same thing, it’s not always easy. That, and the fact that we have awoken today to yet more snow…  This, after a few days of milder weather – yesterday, for the first time in months, I went out in my normal English winter coat, rather than my extremely unflattering but very warm skiing jacket, convinced that spring might just be on the way. Who am I kidding?

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My move to Boston has been monumental in several ways. I touched on work above – and this has been a massive change. For the past five years, one of the things which has defined me is my career – both in as much as having a salary has allowed me to do the things I love outside work, and in that I absolutely love what I do, and am very proud of my work. Moving from working full time to not working at all is a huge shift, and I’ve learned a lot about myself.

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The move has also been a big change for me and Noel – our home in Boston is our first home together. I’ve learned a lot about our relationship and some alarming things about myself – for instance, it turns out I am incredibly picky about toothpaste, and the fact that Noel is unable to remember to put the cap back on turns me into a shrieking banshee of a woman. (Seriously, though, dried toothpaste is so gross). But there are positives as well. One of the things we have been trying to do since we got here is take each other on dates each month – the deal is that whoever is organising the date has to plan everything; it doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive, but it has to be just the two of us (ie, not with Noel’s students…). For our first date, Noel took me to the Museum of Fine Art to see the Mario Testino exhibits, which was wonderful. My first date was equally cultural – a night drinking free beer at the Harpoon Brewery. Ahem.

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For February, I decided to base our date around a film I’ve been trying to get Noel to watch for years – La vita e bella (Life is Beautiful). It’s one of my favourite films, but every time I’ve suggested watching it, Noel hasn’t been keen. I’ve heard all the excuses: from the ridiculous – ‘It’s in Italian, I’m too tired to read the subtitles’ – to the downright mean (and untrue…) – ‘your film choices are always rubbish’. But, seeing as I was organising the date, I got to choose…!

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To go with this (perhaps to sweeten the pill a little?!), I cooked one of Noel’s favourites – oxtail ragu. That’s right, nothing says ‘I love you’ like oxtail. I’ve already waxed lyrical about slow cooking, and this is another great example. The recipe is essentially a basic ragu bolognese recipe, but substitutes oxtail for minced beef, and is cooked very slowly. The results are great – the meat is incredibly tender and flavourful – and as with so many slow-cooked dishes, it tastes as though it is much more complicated than it is. If you can’t get oxtail, or are not keen on it, you can substitute with beef shortribs, beef shin, or stewing steak. If you’re using meat without a bone in, you can reduce the cooking time to more like three hours. You can cook this either on the stove top throughout, or in a low oven.

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Oxtail is a relatively new discovery for me – but a very happy one. I confess, I was only really aware of it because my grandma used to have these bowls when I was a child, and frankly I found the whole  idea a bit off-putting. A few years ago, though, my dad had an oxtail stew for dinner when we were in South Africa, and I was blown away by how tender and delicious it was. I resolved to try cooking with it, and this recipe is the result. The key with oxtail is very long, slow cooking – this is true of many cheaper cuts of meat, but all the more so with oxtail which is full of gelatinous connective tissue, which breaks down to make the finished dish rich and unctuous, but which is unappetising if not fully rendered. It is also a fatty cut, so I would encourage you to make this in advance, if you can, and allow it to cool so that the rendered fat solidifies and you can very easily remove it from the top of the dish. (If you cannot make it in advance, you can spoon the hot fat off, but it is easier and quicker if the fat has hardened).

Before this, we had scallops wrapped in prosciutto with a lemon-parsley-time dressing, and we finished with tiramisu. We had cheesy ‘Italian’ music playing (think ‘That’s Amore’…), and drank lots of nice wine. And I’m happy to report that Noel is a convert to the film…!

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Oxtailragu 
Serves 4-6

  • Approx. 3.5lbs oxtail
  • Olive oil
  • 1/4 cup diced pancetta / 3 rashers bacon, finely chopped
  • 1 large carrot, very finely chopped
  • 1 stick celery, very finely chopped
  • 1 onion, very finely chopped
  • 2 gloves garlic, minced
  • 6 mushrooms, chopped into 1cm dice
  • 3tbsp tomato puree
  • 2 14oz/400g chopped/crushed tomatoes*
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 100ml wine (optional)
  • Salt & Pepper
  • 400-600g spaghetti
  • Freshly grated parmesan, to serve.

If you plan to cook the dish in the oven, pre-heat to 150C / 300F. Heat 1/2tbsp of olive oil in a large casserole over a high heat until the oil is hot and glistening. Trim any excess fat from the oxtail, season with salt and pepper, and brown the meat in batches until it is a rich, dark brown on all sides. Remove to a plate. Reduce the heat a little, and add the pancetta/bacon, and cook until browned. Reduce the heat to low, and add the onion, carrot and celery. Cook over a low heat until the vegetables are very soft. Add the garlic and mushrooms, and cook for another 2-3 minutes.

Return the meat to the pan, and stir in the tomato puree – cook for a minute or two, and then add the tomatoes, thyme and wine, if using. Season with salt and pepper. Cover the pan, and either move to the oven, or leave on the stove on a very low heat. Cook for 4-5 hours.

If you are preparing the dish in advance, once it has cooked for the required time, you can remove from the oven and allow to cool, and then place in the fridge until needed. When you come to reheat it, remove the solidified fat from on top of the dish, and then remove the oxtail bones. If you are making it and serving it at the same time, once it has finished cooking, spoon the excess fat from the top of the dish and discard. Remove the oxtail bones and allow to cool until cold enough to handle.

You may find that some of the meat has fallen off the bones during cooking – this is fine. Remove any meat still attached to the bones, and shred into small pieces – it should be falling apart by this stage. Return the meat to the pan and discard the bones. Reheat the dish, and cook the spaghetti according to packet instructions. Serve with freshly grated parmesan.

* Note on tomatoes – in the UK, I usually use tinned chopped tomatoes. However, over here,  tend to find the juice they are in thin and watery, and have had better results with crushed tomatoes.

Birthday Brunch – Corn Hotcakes

Corn hotcakes

It was Noel’s birthday last month, and so as with all good birthdays, we made a Plan. As the birthday itself fell on a Monday, we decided to celebrate with friends the day before, and invited some people round for a roast dinner, followed by watching the Patriots lose to the Ravens (as it turned out…), and playing silly games. On the day itself, we had tickets to see the Boston Bruins (ice hockey, for my non-American friends…) – my first time at a game! A late addition to the Plan was the last-minute arrival in Boston of one of our closest friends from the UK – posted to New York for six months with 24hrs notice. The obvious way for him to start this adventure was with a weekend in Boston with us beforehand – and so the whole weekend was a big celebration.

Unbeknownst to Noel, I had formulated another part of the Plan, which was to cook him a special birthday brunch before we went to the lunchtime Bruins game. Unfortunately, the downside of cooking roast beef for 12 people and drinking a lot of wine the night before was that my kitchen and my head both resembled a bomb site come Monday morning… So I decided to reschedule.

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This recipe is a recreation of a dish I ate while visiting my parents in Johannesburg. For those of you who don’t know it Jozi, as it’s known, is an amazing city – vibrant, exciting, with loads going on. I don’t need to tell you that it’s often best known around the world as a place of troubles – as a hot-bed of tragedy and brutality during the apartheid era, and more recently as a crime-riddled city not safe for tourists. I can’t pretend there isn’t truth in this, but the focus on Johannesburg’s problems doesn’t do the city justice. For while Johannesburg, and for that matter South Africa, still has a long way to go, you have only to look at how far it’s already come to know it will get there. Johannesburg is a city of contradictions and frustrations – unthinkable wealth alongside the most abject poverty, opportunity and promise alongside lingering prejudice. But for me, the thing which stands out about the city, and the country as a whole, is an overwhelming feeling of hope, and the desire to do better.

There are things about Johannesburg which make me smile, even as I sigh in frustration – such as the fact that you have to unplug the internet when there’s a big thunder storm (of which there are many). Talk to a local about this, and you will be met with a wry smile, a shrug of the shoulders, and the reminder that, after all, ‘T.I.A’ (This is Africa)… Quite frankly, it’s a place I never thought I would visit – but even in the relatively short time I’ve known it, it’s a place I have come to love and count as a second home.

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And this is before I even begin to talk about the food. I’ve eaten some of the best meals in my life in South Africa, and any trip there is preceded, weeks before arrival, by detailed plans of what and where we are going to eat while we’re there. It is a meat-lover’s paradise – beautiful steak, for one thing, but also more unusual meats: ostrich, kudu, impala… I could go on. From fine dining to cafe eating – Johannesburg has it all.

Which brings me to this post. One of my favourite places to go in Johannesburg is 44 Stanley – a group of old industrial buildings which have been redeveloped and now house restaurants, cafes, and small boutiques. We visit regularly – for the wonderful food, shopping and people watching. When it comes to food, you are spoilt for choice – I have had wonderful meals at the Salvationcafe and the beautiful Il Giardino Degli Ulivi, to name but two. On my most recent visit, my mum and I had brunch at Vovo Telo – an artisan bakery and restaurant. I had the most amazing corn hotcakes – poached eggs on a corn hotcake, with crispy coppa ham, roasted tomatoes, rocket and pesto. It was so simple, but yet so delicious, I was desperate to try to recreate it – and Noel’s belated birthday brunch was the perfect opportunity.

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For my version, I used Bill Granger’s Sweetcorn Fritters with Avocado Salsa recipe (without the salsa) for the hotcakes – I halved the recipe and made four slightly larger cakes (rather than six smaller ones), which was fine for two of us. I used frozen sweetcorn, and substituted basil for cilantro. In terms of the original dish – I used streaky bacon rather than coppa as I had it in the fridge – I think either works equally well. Noel is not the biggest fan of roasted tomatoes, so I left those out – I don’t think the dish suffered for it. I also substituted a drizzle of this incredible truffle balsamic vinegar for the basil pesto, which was amazing!! If you don’t have pesto to hand, a small drizzle of straightforward balsamic vinegar would also be nice.

Poaching eggs is something I’ve discovered only fairly recently – I’ve always been a big fussy when it comes to eggs, but I am starting to see the light and try new ways of cooking them. There are so many different ways of poaching an egg – I used Felicity Cloake’s version, and I was happy with the results.

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Corn hotcakes with poached eggs and bacon 
Serves 2

For the hotcakes:

  • 1 1/3 cups sweetcorn
  • 1/2 small red onion, chopped
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup chopped basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup plain/all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • oil (for shallow frying)
  • 6 rashers streaky bacon
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 handfuls of peppery salad leaves (such as watercress or rocket)
  • Basil pesto or balsamic vinegar (to serve)

Broil or grill the bacon until it’s cooked to your liking. Once it is cooked, remove from the broiler/grill and heat the oven to 120C/250F. Put the bacon in the oven to keep warm

While the bacon is cooking, start preparing the hotcakes. Place one cup of the sweetcorn in the bowl of a food processor. Put the remaining kernels in a bowl and cover with warm water to allow them to defrost slightly. Add the onion, egg, basil, flour and baking powder to the food processor, and season with salt and pepper. Process until the mixture is combined. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the remaining whole corn kernels.

Heat 1 tbsp oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, drop 2 – 3 tablespoons of the mix per cake into the pan and cook in batches for one minute on each side. Drain on paper towels, and keep warm in the oven while you cook the other cakes. Once all cakes are cooked and in the oven, bring a medium pan of generously salted water to the boil. Crack the remaining eggs into a small jug, bowl or mug (you can do this two at a time). When the water is boiling, stir vigorously with a balloon whisk to create a whirlpool. Slip two eggs (one at a time) into the centre of the whirlpool. Reduce the heat to low, and cook for three minutes. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon, and drain on kitchen paper. Repeat for the remaining two eggs.

Arrange the salad leaves on two plates, and top with the hotcakes. Place an egg on top of each hotcake, and arrange the bacon around the plate. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle over pesto and/or balsamic vinegar.

Pasta alla Puttanesca – or, store-cupboard-supper

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Well, well – it’s been an eventful few weeks here in the Orange Kitchen household, and I’m sorry not to have posted for a while. Last week, we were in Colorado for our first experience of skiing in the States. It was the most wonderful week – made all the more enjoyable because it almost didn’t happen…

We were due to leave Boston on the evening of 8th February – yes, the very same night that mega-storm Nemo rolled into town. Realising the chances of us getting a flight that night were nil, we changed our flight to leave from New York, thinking it might not be hit quite as hard. As it turned out, our Friday night flight from NY was cancelled more than 24hrs before we were due to leave – thankfully, we managed to get a flight to Denver via Chicago first thing on Friday morning, and, disaster averted, had the most amazing week. On the plus side, our holiday started a day early, with a fabulous night in NY with friends – which made the 6.30 departure from JFK the next morning all the more painful…

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Our hurried departure meant that I got half way through a post, meaning to finish it on Thursday before we left, but in all the chaos I didn’t get a chance. That post will follow soon, but for now, here’s a little post about one of my favourite pasta dishes – something delicious, easy, and using ingredients you may well have in the store cupboard.

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Funnily enough, Pasta alla Puttanesca is full of ingredients I really didn’t like until recently – anchovies, capers, and (to a lesser extent) olives. It’s strange how our tastes change – I can remember picking capers out of my mum’s fish pie, which is a really tedious thing to do, but such was my dislike of them that I thought it was worth it… Now, I can’t get enough of them, and use them a lot in my cooking. And while I still wouldn’t eat anchovies straight from the tin, I am a total convert to their use in cooking. They impart a wonderful savoury saltiness which can completely transform a dish – be it puttanesca, my earlier meatball recipe, or roast lamb.

Pasta alla Puttanesca is one of those dishes, along with for instance Spaghetti alla carbonara, where the origins of both name and recipe are murky to say the least. I probably don’t need to tell you that ‘puttanesca’ is Italian for, ahem, lady of the night – but the reasoning behind the pasta dish being thus named is vague. According to Delia Smith, ‘presumably the sauce has adopted this name because it’s hot, strong and gutsy’, and Angela Hartnett’s theory is that ‘it takes as long to cook the dish as it does the lady to take care of her clients’… As for the dish’s origins, many recipes suggest that it was born in the South of Italy – mainly because of its strong, hearty flavours. Frankly, when it tastes as good as it does, I can’t say I mind where it’s from!

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Unsurprisingly, there are many different ways to cook puttanesca – this is mine! For me, it has to have anchovies, capers, olives, garlic and chili – and I like the sauce to be fairly thick, and to coat each strand of pasta. My preference is for the sauce to coat the pasta so that there is very little sauce left in the bowl once you’ve eaten the pasta. I always use spaghetti or linguine for this dish, but you can use short pasta such as penne if you prefer.

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Pasta alla Puttanesca
Serves 4

  • 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • 6-8 anchovy fillets
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
  • 1-2 chilis (to taste), de-seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp capers, drained and rinsed
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 2 tins chopped tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup pitted black olives, sliced
  • salt & pepper
  • 400g spaghetti

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over a medium heat. Add the garlic and anchovies, and cook until the garlic is lightly browned and the anchovies have broken down. You are looking for the anchovies to become a paste in the pan with the oil, with no large pieces of fish. Stir in the capers and chilis, and cook for another minute, before stirring in the tomato puree. Allow to cook for another minute or two, and then add the tinned tomatoes. Stir in the chopped olives, and season well with pepper and a little salt – taste as you go when adding the salt as the anchovies, capers and olives are all salty. Allow to cook, uncovered, over a medium-low heat, until the sauce has reduced and thickened.

Cook the spaghetti in a large pan of salted water according to packet instructions, until al dente. Before draining, add a spoonful or two of the pasta water to the sauce and stir through. Drain the pasta, and return to the pan. Stir the sauce into the pasta so that it coats every strand, and serve!

In praise of slow-cooked meat

Here’s a little song I wrote for you:

(To be sung to a truncated version of the tune of ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’)

Short ribs braising in a pot of wine,
Lamb shanks bubbling on the stove.
Big pot of oxtail, been cooked for five hours,
And now just falling off the bone.
Everybody knows…
Boeuf Bourguignon is best cooked slow
The same is true of Bolognese
Although it’s been said, many times, many ways,
Try slow cooking, try slow cooking
Try slow cooking – today! 

Yes, I have too much time on my hands. Yes, it might also be true that I spend too much time on my own without anyone to talk to. However – putting aside these minor concerns for my mental health, slow-cooked meat is completely amazing, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

I do a lot of slow cooking, and have for some years – in fact, I think almost the first thing I cooked for a dinner party was boeuf bourguignon. One of my favourite things to do on a rainy Sunday is cook some sort of slow-cooked meat-in-liquid-type-dish, and now that I *ahem* have more time on my hands, I do this in the week, as well. Braising, stewing, casseroling and the like are up there with baking bread in terms of how to make your house smell amazing, and there are few things better to eat on a cold, blustery day.

On Monday night, I cooked a somewhat bastardised version of the Brazilian dish feijoada – essentially, various cuts of pork cooked slowly with black beans. Although I’m not sure I can speak for its authenticity, it was completely delicious, and Noel asked if I was going to blog about it. In many ways, I would love to write about that recipe, because it was great, but I have held back because I feel like posting recipes for slow-cooking is sort of… cheating.

For one thing, slow cooking meat is really, really, really easy. It does take time, but all but the first 30mins or so is time that involves no effort on your part whatsoever. Cheating, also, because almost every recipe for slow cooking follows the same basic premise – brown meat, sauté onion + other veg, put meat back in pot with some sort of liquid, cook on a low heat until completely scrummy – and so I felt I had very little to add. I do have a recipe for oxtail up my sleeve which I will post on here – probably some time next month. But beyond that, there are so many great recipes for slow cooking out there, I wasn’t sure I could really add to them.

So – rather than give you my version of a slow-cook recipe, I thought I’d talk a bit instead about slow-cooking in general, and share some tips and a few recipes I’ve really enjoyed, which you might like to try.

Tip 1 – brown your meat properly. I can’t emphasise this enough – start by browning your meat properly, and everything else will fall into place. In my opinion, there are few things less appetising to eat than blond, anaemic-looking pieces of meat – and conversely, few things more tasty than meat with a nice toasty crust: this is as true for braising as it is for cooking steak. In addition, if you brown your meat properly, all the yummy crusty goodness will go towards making the final sauce that bit more delicious. There are lots of recipes out there which will tell you the same thing, but the one which, for me, summed it up perfectly is Adam Roberts’ recipe for Daube de Boeuf over on Amateur Gourmet – as he says, ‘If I had to point out how I’ve grown the most as a cook over my 9 years of doing this, it would be my ability to brown meat really, really well’, and I agree – when I figured out this basic step, my casseroles improved massively. He also offers this excellent advice: ‘don’t start chopping your vegetables until you start browning your beef. This’ll ensure that you really let the beef take its time and you don’t stand around impatiently. If you do this right, you’ll have a plate of browned meat and a big bowl of vegetables ready to go at the same time’. So true – if you have nothing else to do when browning meat, you will stand around twiddling your thumbs and the temptation is to rush the process. So give yourself something else to do, and hey presto, the time flies.

Tip 1a – don’t crowd the pan when browning the meat. This is something which frustrated me for years. Countless recipes out there tell you not to brown the meat in batches and not crowd the pan, but I never read one which explained WHY. This drove me mad! Why can’t I shove all the meat in together and speed up the process?! Finally, I found the answer in the wonderful Felicity Cloake’s recipe for ‘perfect chilli con carne’. I should’ve known she would have the answer – and here it is: ‘don’t crowd the pan, or [the meat] will steam rather than brown’. Which makes sense, really. So there you have it.

Tip 2 – fat = flavour. Every recipe I have ever seen for slow cooking calls for what is usually referred to as ‘cheaper’ or ‘economical’ cuts of meat. What this means, is meat which is fattier than its more expensive counterparts – fattier, more full of connective tissue, tough as old boots if cooked quickly, but therefore absolutely ideal for slow cooking. When this meat is cooked slowly at a low temperature, the fat renders and the connective tissue breaks down, leaving the meat itself fork-tender, and the sauce in which it’s been cooked rich and unbelievably tasty. (On a side note – isn’t ‘fork-tender’ a wonderful phrase? So evocative, makes me automatically hungry). Of course, you can remove excess fat from the meat before cooking if you would like, but please don’t go nuts – leave some fat to help your dish along. Which brings me to…

Tip 3 – remove excess fat. I love fat – I am a total glutton for crispy bacon, chops, and don’t even get me started on crackling. What I don’t enjoy, however, is the greasy layer of fat on top of a sauce – and so I tend to spoon off the excess. There are two ways of doing this. Either, once the meat has had its allotted time, spoon the fat off and discard. Or, even more straightforward, if you have time, allow the dish to cool, the fat will solidify, and you can remove it very easily from the top before reheating. This has the added advantage of…

Tip 4 – slow-cooked dishes taste even better the next day. There is nothing wrong whatsoever with eating a casserole or braise straight from the oven. It will be delicious. However, if you have time and are able to plan ahead, another tip which, again, involves no effort on your part but which will take your dish straight from good to great is to leave it to cool overnight and serve it the next day. The flavours will develop and intensify, and it will taste even better. And how’s this – this means you can put a dish in the oven on a Sunday, potter around the house and do chores, then chill it overnight and eat it on Monday evening – seriously, what could be better after a miserable Monday than the most delicious dinner, ready made and waiting for you?

Tip 5 – make a big batch and freeze it. I’ve never yet made a slow-cooked meal which didn’t freeze well. It is such a great thing to have in the freezer. It is, if anything, easier to cook a big batch than a smaller one, and the leftovers will be awesome.

There you go, them’s my tips! Enjoy. To finish, here are a few recipes I’ve enjoyed over the years, and hope you do too.

Involtini di melanzane – Sicilian aubergine rolls

Involtini di melanzane

It is now, officially, 110% Very Cold here in Boston. This morning was a cool -11C / 12F, which might just make this the coldest place I’ve ever been. On the plus side, my local friends have finally been forced to concede that it is Very Cold – talk of ‘you haven’t seen anything yet’ seems to have come to an end. On the minus side, it is Very Cold, and ‘you haven’t seen anything yet’ has been replaced with ‘this is only the beginning, there’s months of this to come’. Hurrah.

Griddling the auberines

The other plus side is that it is still lovely and sunny here – hard to believe it’s not a teeny, tiny bit warmer with the bright sun shining. We recently rearranged the furniture in our flat slightly – brought about by the need to fit twelve people around a table for dinner, we moved the dining room table and have decided not to move it back. I am now writing this sitting at the table, in the lovely bay window, in the sunshine. Funnily enough, when I imagined myself writing this blog, it was always sitting here, so it’s strange, really, that it has taken so long for it to happen.

Involtini filling

So – in a move designed to say ‘in your face, cold Boston weather’, my post today is a version of involtini from sunny Sicily. Involtini translates as ‘little rolls’, and can be made from meat, fish, or vegetables wrapped around a filling – my version uses slices of griddled aubergine as the wrapping. The slices are rolled around a filling, coated with tomato sauce, and baked in the oven – delicious, and just as good for a cold winter’s day as in summer.

Rolling the involtini

This is a wonderfully versatile dish – as I mentioned, you can use meat or fish for the wrapping (and there are some suggestions for recipes using meat or fish here, here, here and here). In addition, you can vary the filling based on whatever takes your fancy and/or whatever you happen to have in the house. One version I’ve seen includes a slice of prosciutto on top of the aubergine, which sounds wonderful – I might well have adopted this, but I was aiming for a meat-free day. When I suggested this to Noel, he informed me that he was, at that very moment, eating a carnitas burrito… Hey ho. 

Rolled bundles

In terms of stuffing the rolls, the world is your oyster – though I’m not sure I would use oysters themselves… The most ‘traditional’ filling includes breadcrumbs, pine nuts and small currants – however, I’ve seen lovely-looking versions which explore all sorts of different flavours, such as Nigella’s Greek-inspired recipe. I also think the basic premise of involtini could be used to make a sort of pasta-free cannelloni – using the aubergine slices in place of pasta, and stuffing them with, say, spinach and ricotta. Something to try in the future…

My recipe is definitely Italian-inspired, though I’ve jettisoned the currants… I also included a basic tomato sauce recipe here, though you could use a jar of passata instead, if you prefer. Most importantly, experiment with the flavours for the filling until you find your perfect balance – and let me know how you get on!

Ready to go in the oven!

Involtini di melanzane

Serves 4

Prep time: approx 30mins / Cook time 30mins

  • 2 large aubergines
  • For the tomato sauce:
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 2x 14oz/400g tins chopped tomatoes
  • A splash of wine (optional)
  • Salt & pepper
  • For the filling:
  • 100g / 3.5oz bread, crusts removed
  • 1 tbsp pine nuts
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp capers, rinsed
  • approx 2 tbsp grated parmesan, plus extra to top the dish
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 ball mozzarella, cut into 1cm dice
  • Salt & pepper
  • To serve:
  • 4-5 basil leaves

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F

Begin by preparing the aubergines. Cut each aubergine into slices lengthways, around 1cm wide. Try to slice them a consistent thickness, so they will cook evenly. Heat a griddle pan or heavy based frying pan over a fairly high heat. Brush each slice of aubergine with a little olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Place in the pan and cook for 2-3 minutes on each side, until browned – you may have to do this in batches. They do not need to be completely cooked through as they will cook more in the oven later, but they do need to soft enough to roll. Once browned, remove to a plate and allow to cool slightly.

Next prepare the sauce [skip this step if you are using passata!]. Heat the oil in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and allow to saute gently, until soft but not browned – around 10 minutes. Add the tomato puree and stir to coat, followed by the tinned tomatoes, and wine (if using). Season with salt and pepper, and allow to cook and reduce for around 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until you are left with a thick sauce.

To prepare the filling for the rolls, place the crustless bread in a food processor, and process to fine breadcrumbs. Place in a large bowl. Toast the pine nuts – place a small dry frying pan over a fairly high heat, add the pine nuts and toast until brown on both sides – take care not to burn them! Add these to the breadcrumbs in the bowl, along with the capers, garlic, and parmesan. Add the beaten egg and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper.

Once the aubergine slices have cooled, take a slice and place a heaped teaspoon at one end of the slice. Add two pieces of mozzarella, and roll the aubergine slice up into a tight roll around the filling, and place to one side. Continue this with the remaining aubergine slices.

Spoon around a quarter of the tomato sauce into an oven-proof dish. Arrange the aubergine rolls on top of the sauce – preferably in a single layer. If you have any pieces of mozzarella left over, dot these around the rolls, saving a few for the topping. Pour the remaining tomato sauce over the aubergine rolls, and arrange any remaining pieces of mozzarella on top. Grate parmesan over the dish, and bake in the oven for around 30 minutes, until the cheese on top is browned and bubbling. Top with fresh basil leaves, and serve.

Guest post: Noel’s Curry Corner!

Noel's Curry Corner

Last week, I promised you a surprise – and here it is, a guest post from my lovely boyfriend Noel. I’ve already mentioned how much I love sharing food with my family and friends, and so it seems very natural to me to share this space with them as well. So here is what is hopefully the first of several guest posts! He’s also kindly edited this introduction to include his thoughts…

Noel loves curry – I think it’s probably his favourite  (we are in America you have spelled this wrong) food (maybe after kebabs…)(You would make a rubbish PR exec but there is nothing libelous here). We have eaten a lot of curry together in restaurants (You passed the test and moved to level 2), and now Noel has perfected his curry recipe, and is ready to share it with you – in Noel’s Curry Corner. He’s been pretty excited about this, and even has his own theme song – which involves singing ‘Curry curry corner’ to the tune of the theme tune of the Chuckle brothers’ hit-TV show ‘Chucklevision’. (Think we should have kept this one between us, please don’t take up PR) So here it is – Noel’s Curry Corner!

Toasting the spices

That was quite the introduction, thank you. I have edited it slightly in red. It is true that I have a passion for curry. Love the stuff. Some people have said that I left the UK on Doctor’s orders because of my curry intake.  I took those people to the best curry place in the world: Spice Lounge in Summertown, Oxford, and infected them with the curry bug. My spice addiction got to such an extreme that they put a new curry on the menu to satisfy my hunger based on the naga chili.

When I arrived in Boston I didn’t feel homesick for family, friends and my girlfriend (sorry guys). What I truly missed was my one true love The Spice Lounge and its fiery goodness. I set about on a quest to find decent curry. I worked my way through Yelp and was disappointed each time. Most of Boston’s curry offerings have been mediocre and surprisingly expensive.

Preparing the chicken

I spoke to my boss back in the UK and told him I wanted to return home, telling him that I couldn’t handle the lifestyle changes that I was being forced to make in the US. He talked me down and I had a brain wave. Why don’t  I make my own curry? I did some intensive research for recipes, spoke to my guru for spiritual guidance (cough* Googled “chicken vindaloo”)

After approximately 12 minutes of searching I stumbled across this recipe

Cooking a curry at home is not difficult once you have stocked up the cupboard with the required spices. My tip is don’t buy the spices at your standard supermarket/grocery store. It will cost you loads and you may as well fly back to London, jump on the X3 bus and then get a taxi to the Spice Lounge.

Instead, hunt down your nearest Indian supermarket. Luckily for me I have 3 on my doorstep. Here you can find every spice under the sun, in quantity and not very expensive. With a fully stocked cupboard you can now wage war on crappy curry. Once you have the ingredients you can cook cheaply, only needing to buy garlic, onions and the protein of your choice. I have also substituted potatoes during meat amnesty’s to make tasty meals super cheap.

Curry after it's been reduced

Before you begin you need to get yourself “in the zone”. I typically like to get all my spices ready on the plate and then chop them into patterns and possibly words, if you are feeling super adventurous. This is more difficult than you might think and took me as long as the actual cooking.

Thank you and goodnight from Noel’s Curry Corner.

Chicken Vindaloo

The Chicken Vindaloo

Serves 4 normal sized portions

Ingredients

Vindaloo Paste

  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 or 2 tsp Garam Masala
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tsp mustard powder
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2cm cube of peeled ginger
  • 3 tbsp distilled vinegar (normal recipe asks for white wine vinegar I don’t have this in stock)
  • 1 tsp sugar

Vindaloo Base

  • 150ml vegetable oil
  • 8 garlic cloves, crushed or blended
  • 3 finely copped onions (original recipe says red onions but I have had great results with you common yellow onion, use whatever you have in stock)

Other Ingredients

  • 3 red chilies ( I use the dried out ones and de-seed, be careful though this is really, really hot. Dried out does not mean that they don’t pack a punch as Sarah and myself can testify)
  • 4 skinless chicken breasts cut into bite size pieces
  • 800g good quality chopped tomatoes or chopped tinned tomatoes (the original asks for 500g of tomatoes, I have found that 800g works fine and this means you get an extra portion of curry)
  • 1-2 tbsp of tomato purée to taste
  • Salt and pepper to taste

This is where the magic happens

Step 1:  Heat the oil in a large pan or whatever is clean and large.  Add the garlic and onion and cook on a medium heat for around 7-10 mins. Don’t let them burn or brown too much.

Step 2: After leaving the garlic, onions and oil to do their thing heat all of your dry spice powders in a shallow frying plan for around 5 mins or until they begin to smoke a little.  This should release their flavours and make your house smell like curry for 3 days. (curry is the world’s strongest aphrodisiac)

Step 3: In a small dish mix the vinegar, ginger and sugar.

Step 4: Mix the spice powders with the vinegar, ginger and sugar into a thick vindaloo paste.

Step 5: Salt and pepper the onions &  garlic & then add the chicken to them. Cook for a few minutes until the chicken starts to color.

Step 6:  Add chilies, tomatoes and tomato puree and begin to stir in the vindaloo paste.

Step 7: Salt and pepper to taste.

Step 8: Bring to the boil and then simmer for 1hr +. The curry might dry out depending on how watery the tinned tomatoes were that you put in. If it is starting to look dry then add a cup of water.

I would serve this with Basmati rice and also some lime pickle (you can find both of these at your local Indian supermarket).

This curry tastes even better the next day and freezes very happily.

Winter Chicken Salad with Plums & Soy

Winter Chicken Salad with Plums & Soy

Hello, hello! I am sorry about my unscheduled absence last week – I was all ready to greet the new year with a new post, but sadly the lurgy got in the way and instead I greeted the new year with ibuprofen, my duvet, and many, many episodes of How I Met Your Mother. (Including the episode with this song in it – enough to cheer anyone up). But now I’m back on my feet, and to make up for it, I have this lovely winter salad post, and… later this week or early next, a *surprise*! I know, exciting, non?

So while I leave you in that orgy of suspense, let’s talk about… commuting.

I never, ever thought I would say this, but one of the things I really miss about my life back in the UK is my commute to and from work. It’s a strange thing to say, not least because one of the characteristics of being a Londoner, and one of the things which binds us together, is regular grumbles about the transport system. In truth, it’s a love-to-hate thing, because, let’s face it, the London transport system is really quite incredible – something I’ve come to realise all the more since moving away. This isn’t why I loved my commute, though – or not the only reason.

The reason I loved my commute is because it gave me at least 30 minutes a day of unadulterated, uninterrupted reading time. There is almost never phone signal on the tube in central London, and this gives you a wonderful sense of freedom. You can’t be anywhere else, or doing anything else, while you’re on the tube – you can’t receive calls from angry orchestra managers asking why a venue isn’t open for them to load in their instruments, or pleading emails from stage managers asking if you know anywhere in central London to park a truck full of instruments (true stories, both…). In the busiest, most stressful patches of my job, these short journeys provided me with a wonderful sense of peace. True, there are days when you don’t get a seat – for that matter, there are days when you have to wait for three trains to pass through before you can get on a train, and if your journey includes getting on at Oxford Circus (among other stations), there are days, more frequent than you might imagine, where you have to wait to even get into the station. But these are the exceptions.

People do all sorts of things on the tube – some listen to music, some do their make up, some sit quietly with their thoughts, some sit… less quietly with their thoughts. I read. Mostly, I would read my book – but once a week, I would read the treat that is Stylist magazine. Stylist is a free magazine which comes out once a week, and which is distributed, among other places, at stations in London. It’s something I looked forward to every week, and which brightened my commute. It is a wonderful mix of fashion, culture and events, aimed primarily at women – they have great columnists, they do interviews with inspiring, interesting women, and they tackle important issues facing women today. They also have a weekly food column, often featuring recipes from ‘celebrity’ chefs – many of these are cut out and stuck in my recipe scrapbook, some still waiting to be made, others which have already become firm favourites.

One of these is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chicken with Plums and Soy – I made this a few times before I left London, it is a wonderful recipe. It’s very simple, but so delicious – the chicken is crispy skinned and tender, with a wonderful dark, salty glaze from the soy. The plums are sweet and sour, and the whole thing is pepped up by the aromatics – garlic, ginger and chili. I have always been deeply suspicious of fruit in savoury dishes – pineapple on pizza is just wrong, as are raisins in curry – but I am willing to waive these suspicions for this dish, the plums really make it.

Chicken, garlic, ginger & chili

The first time I made this, I thought it’s something that might work well as a salad – particularly with the chicken served warm, with peppery leaves such as rocket (/arugula) and watercress. Nigel Slater has a wonderful recipe in The Kitchen Diaries for chicken salad with watercress, almonds and orange – beautiful hunks of warm chicken with juicy orange and crunchy almonds, which work so well against the peppery watercress – and I wondered if I could make something similar with this recipe. In this cold weather, I eat a lot of warming, hearty, stew-type meals, and sometimes I miss the freshness of a salad. This meal has that freshness from the leaves, but still has a comforting warmth – both literally, in the form of the chicken and plums, and figuratively, in the form of the aromatics.

Toasting the walnuts

When I went shopping to make this, I couldn’t find plums anywhere, so I settled for nectarines instead – it was ok, but nothing like as good as with plums, so the recipe below sticks with plums and I would urge you to use these, if you can. Nectarines have a slightly floral note which does not work as well with the flavours – though at a pinch, it is an option. I added some toasted chopped walnuts, for crunch, which did work really well, so they’re in the recipe!

Chicken, plums & soy

Winter Chicken Salad with Plums & Soy

Adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chicken with Plums and Soy

Serves 2

Cook time – 1 hr

Prep time – 2omins

  • 4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
  • 1/2 tbsp sunflower (/other flavourless) oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 or 2 chilies (optional)
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 2-3 inch piece ginger
  • 4 plums, halved and stoned
  • 3 tbsp soy sauce
  • 75-100g salad leaves, such as rocket, watercress or baby spinach (or a mix)
  • handful of walnut pieces
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil

Preheat the oven to 200C / 400F. Put the chicken thighs in a roasting tray – season with salt and pepper and drizzle with oil. Roast for 30 minutes, turning once or twice.

De-seed the chili(es) and slice into thin strips. Peel and slice two of the garlic cloves – reserve the third for the salad dressing. Peel the ginger – you can either grate it, or slice into match-stick pieces. Reserve around 1/2 tsp for the dressing. After 30 minutes, add the chili, garlic and ginger to the chicken in the pan, return to the oven, and roast for another 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes, remove the chicken from the oven, and add the halved plums to the tray. Try to arrange everything in one layer. Pour over 2 tbsp of the soy sauce (reserve the remainder for the dressing) – if the tray is dry, add a tablespoon or two of water. Return the tray to the oven and roast for another 10-15 minutes.

Once the chicken is cooked, remove to a plate and allow to cool slightly. You may find you need to cook the plums a little longer than 10-15 minutes – if so, drain off most of the liquid from the tray to a bowl, and return the tray to the oven for 5-10 minutes.

While the chicken is cooling, prepare the salad. Put the walnut pieces in a dry saucepan over a medium heat, and toast for 2-3 minutes – watch them carefully to make sure they do not burn. Spoon off the fat from the juices from the pan – discard the fat. Crush the remaining garlic clove, and add to the juices with the chopped ginger. Add a small amount of sesame oil – it is very strongly flavoured, so add it a little at a time and taste as you go. Add the reserved soy sauce, again, tasting as you go, and top up with a little sunflower oil. Stir together to create a dressing.

Arrange the salad leaves in a bowl. Remove the chicken from the bone, and cut to bite-sized pieces. Arrange the chicken, walnuts and plums over the leaves, and top with the dressing. Serve with crusty bread.

When is a ham not a ham?

Here we are, post-Christmas, in that strange in-betweeny time before New Year. We had a wonderful Christmas – we awoke here in Boston to a snowy morning; not heavy snow, but snowfall nonetheless, and started the day with a walk through the snow, admiring the beauty of our surroundings in unprecedented quiet. We had champagne, and opened presents. We spoke to friends and family across the globe – a bizarre experience given the time difference. And we joined our favourite American family for a re-run of the previously mentioned Thanksgiving feasting. This time, it was beautiful rare roast beef – cooked to perfection, succulent and juicy, with mashed potato, gravy, salad, and a wonderful beany-noodle concoction which I forgot to ask about but which was, trust me, delicious.

As if we needed more food – we then invited the family to our house on Boxing Day, to try and reciprocate some of the kindness and delicious food they’ve offered us since we arrived. And it is here that this story really begins…

First of all, an apology – I had not intended to write about this dish, and so I took no photos. However, the experience of preparing this meal, and the results, were pretty tremendous, and I wanted to share with you, so I hope you will forgive the absence of pictures this time around.

Disclaimer over – I ask you a question: When is a ham not a ham?

A meal that I love, and one which we often have on Boxing Day at home, is a hot ham, glazed with English mustard and soft brown sugar. The ham is boiled first (leaving you with a delicious hammy stock), before being glazed with a paste made from sugar and English mustard powder and baked in the oven. It is a great way to feed a crowd, and you end up with great left-overs… So I thought this would be perfect for my Boxing Day meal this year.

I started to look for an uncooked ham in the stores – in the UK, this is very easy to buy in any supermarket or butcher’s, but here all I could find was pre-cooked ham. I could have bought this, and glazed and baked it, but I was hoping to have the stock – and I wanted to include the full recipe here. So I spoke to the guy on the butcher counter, explained what I was looking for, and he said they had one left in the store, and that it was 19lbs!! Well, I thought once we’ve fed seven of us, there will be leftovers, I can make soup, we can have sandwiches – pretty much perfect.

It was only after we got home that I looked properly at the label and realised it said ‘fresh ham’… that is… pork. Turns out, ‘ham’ is a cut of pig (the hind leg), which is often, but not always, cured. So the answer to the question is:  a ham is not a ham when it’s… a ham.

I hadn’t even thought to check this, because the only ham I’d even come across before was cured. This left me with a dilemma – and a huge leg of pork. In the end, I decided to go ahead, and started looking for a recipe for fresh ham – finally settling on this one from food network. I served this with Delia Smith’s traditional braised red cabbage with apples, cauliflower cheese, and roast potatoes.

I adapted it slightly – partly because I had a bigger joint of meat, partly because I wanted to try and crackle the skin, and partly because I wanted to adapt the flavour of the rub slightly. I was also concerned about the cider glaze being a bit too sweet, so I strained off the juices in the pan to use later for gravy before I glazed the meat, meaning the gravy had a meatier base. The recipe I’m giving you below is based on a very large piece of pork, in case you ever find yourself with a huge joint of meat and wondering what to do with it. However, if you want to use it for a smaller joint, you can follow the basic cooking times of 20 minutes in a hot oven (250C/475F) followed by 22-26 minutes per pound (450g) at 160C/325F. If you are using a meat thermometer, it should read between 160 & 165 at the end of the cooking time.

Roasted fresh ham with herb crust and cider glaze

Adapted from the foodnetwork.com

Serves… many.

Preparation time: around 40mins active preparation time + 8hrs soaking + 8hrs cooking

  • 1 19-pound fresh ham, bone in and skin on

For the brine:

  • 2 gallons (NB: US gallons)/9 litres water
  • 2 cups kosher salt*
  • 1 cup / 240g dark brown sugar
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 cinnamon stick

For the rub, glaze & gravy:

  • 1/2 cup / 120ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup / 8 tbsp dijon mustard
  • 12 fresh sage leaves
  • 6-8 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves only
  • 8-10 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
  • 12 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 onions, peeled and quartered
  • 1 gallon apple cider**
  • 2 tbsp plain/all-purpose flour
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon

At least one day before you plan to roast the meat, prepare the brine. Score the skin of the meat – cut in diagonal strips across the meat. Cut through the skin and fat, but do not cut as far as the flesh. Dissolve the salt and sugar in the water, and stir in the remaining ingredients. Make sure the brine is cold, transfer to a plastic container (if not already) and then submerge the meat in the brine. If necessary, weight the meat with a plate to ensure it remains fully submerged. Refrigerate for at least four, but not more than eight, hours.

Remove the meat from the brine, rinse well and pat dry. Cover with a clean tea towel or cotton cloth and refrigerate.

When you are ready to cook the meat, heat the oven to 250c/475F. Put the meat in a roasting tin, skin side up, and place in the hot oven for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, reduce the heat to 160C/325F, and roast for around four hours. While the meat is roasting, prepare the rub and glaze. Pour the cider into a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat, and simmer until it is reduced to a syrup, skimming the top as necessary. This will take at least 1 1/2 hours. For the rub, place the sage, rosemary, garlic, thyme, oil and mustard into a food processor and blend until it is a coarse paste. Season with salt and pepper.

After four hours’ cooking, remove the meat from the oven and carefully take off the skin. Leave some of the fat on the meat as you will add the rub to this. Place the skin in a tray to one side until later. Smear the rub over the fat of the meat, tuck the quartered onions around the meat in the tray, and return to the oven for a further 2 hours. Keep an eye on the rub and if it starts to brown too much, cover lightly with foil [I did not find I needed to do this].

After two hours’ further cooking, remove from the oven and carefully spoon off the juices in the pan to a saucepan or jug. Spoon or brush the reduced cider over the meat, taking care not to dislodge the rub. Return to the oven and roast for another 1-2 hours, basting occasionally. After one hour, start to check the temperature of the meat – once it is between 160 & 165 remove from the oven.

Remove the meat to a rack and cover lightly with foil – allow to rest for at least 30 minutes and up to one hour. When you remove the meat from the oven, turn the oven up to 250C / 475F and return the skin to the oven on a baking tray to crisp up. To make the gravy – pour the remaining juices from the roasting pan into the saucepan, and spoon off the fat. Add the flour to the roasting pan and stir vigorously, scraping any crusty bits from the pan. Return the roasting juices to the pan, stirring, and heat through. If required, add some water to thin slightly. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary – add a squeeze of lemon juice to balance the sweetness of the cider.

Carve the meat, and serve with the onions and gravy.

Notes:

  • * For those unfamiliar with it – more information on kosher salt is available here. If it is not easily obtainable, I would suggested substituting sea salt.
  • ** ‘Apple cider’ in the US is not the same as alcoholic cider – rather, it is unfiltered, unsweetened apple juice.

A sunny soup to chase away the blues – Thai-style squash soup

Thai-style Butternut squash soup

It’s nearly Christmas! Here in the orange kitchen household, we are preparing for our first American Christmas, and, for that matter, our first Christmas together, which happens also to be our first Christmas without either set of parents, siblings, aunts and uncles etc… This will be the first Christmas in four years together where Noel and I open our presents to each other on the day itself – normally, we open them together early before I jet off to see my parents or he makes the trip to see his family. It feels pretty… momentous. And slightly scarily grown up. Not so grown-up, though that we won’t be watching Muppet Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve – a Pantcheff tradition for as long as I can remember.

So in the midst of this Christmas-tide, I bring you… soup. Not a Christmas soup, but a delicious, warming, sunny soup. Sunny because it is a glorious gold colour, and is spiced so as to warm and brighten. It is also wonderfully easy to make, and a great standby to have in the fridge or freezer over the festive period.

Roasted squash

I love butternut squash, but it is a pain to prepare. I find the skin is usually so tough before cooking that I feel as if I’m a lumberjack attacking a tree if I try and peel, or even dice, it before cooking – and I find this boring and frustrating. So – almost every time I use butternut squash, I roast it, whole, before doing anything else. After even 20 minutes in the oven, it is so much easier to deal with – and if you can spare 30 minutes to roast it, it will reward you by yielding to your knife so easily. It also means that the cooking time in the soup itself is reduced, which can be handy. Of course, if you have more patience than me, you can prepare the squash when it’s raw, but if you happen to have the oven on (because, for instance, you’re making this incredible braised short ribs recipe…) then this is an easy way to cut down the effort involved.

Spice base

My recipe below uses a base of coriander, ginger, lemongrass and chili along with the more usual diced onion and garlic – I also use a small amount of shop-bought thai curry paste. If you don’t have the fresh ingredients readily available, feel free to increase the amount of curry paste – the soup will come to no harm as a result. When I made it, I chopped the ginger and lemongrass fairly roughly, as I knew I was going to blend the soup later – this meant that when I ate the finished product, I would come across small pieces of both which ‘popped’ in my mouth and were so delicious – however, if you don’t like the sound of this, you can chop everything more finely or use a food processor.

Thai-style butternut squash soup

Thai-style butternut squash soup

Serves 6 as a starter or light lunch

  • 1 large butternut squash
  • 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • Small bunch of coriander (leave and stalks), roughly chopped, plus leaves to garnish
  • 2-inch piece ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, tough outer leaves removed, and roughly chopped
  • 1 small chili, de-seeded and chopped
  • 1-2 tsp thai curry paste
  • Salt & pepper
  • 1 tin coconut milk
  • 1 pint / 500ml chicken or vegetable stock
  • Juice of 1/2 a lime

Heat the oven to 400F/200C and place the squash in the oven, directly on the racks. Roast for at least 20 minutes, preferably more like 30.

While the squash is roasting, heat a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onion and cook slowly until it is starting to soften – around 5 minutes. Add the coriander, ginger, lemongrass, garlic and chili, season well with salt and pepper, and cook for another 3-4 minutes. Stir in the thai curry paste, and allow the base to cook for a further 2 minutes. Remove from the heat until the squash is ready.

Once the squash has roasted, remove from the oven and once it is cool enough to handle, remove the skin and seeds. Dice into 1-inch pieces, and add to the spice mix in the pan – bring the pan back up to heat if you’d taken the spice mix off. Add the tin of coconut and the stock – bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently until the squash is tender. The time this takes will vary depending on how long you roasted it for – it will take at least 15 minutes, and could take up to 40 minutes if your squash was only roasted briefly.

Once the squash is cooked, turn off the heat and use a stick blender to blend the soup to your desired consistency – I like mine smooth, but you can leave chunks of squash, if you prefer. If the soup is very thick, add a little more stock or water. Check the soup for seasoning, and add lime juice to taste.

Serve garnished with coriander leaves.

Spaghetti-and-meatballs

Meatballs

So a while back, in my first recipe post, I mentioned that the weather has been cold, but not so cold that you just want stews and the like. And… three and a half weeks later, not a whole lot has changed. We’ve had some really cold days, like take-your-breath-away cold, but they have mostly been isolated days, with much milder temperatures in between. So here is another recipe which hopefully will help tide you through the in-betweeny stage.

Meatballs are a wonderful thing – they are something I order all the time when I’m out. However, so often I find them disappointing – largely because I find that they are too often hard and dry. To me, meatballs are comfort food – and they should tread a fine line between holding their form, but being soft and yielding once you start eating them. I had made them several times, but never quite got it right.

Meatball mix

I was thrilled, then, to discover Angela Hartnett’s recipe, and her trick of using milk-soaked bread to bind the mixture, rather than the more usual egg. Her recipe makes meatballs which are just the most delicious I’ve ever tasted. I have adapted her recipe slightly – I substitute pork for veal, as it is more readily available. I’ve added some chili to both the meatball mix and the accompanying sauce, and I simmer the meatballs in the sauce on the stove top rather than putting them in the oven. The result is a more homogeneous meaty sauce than the original, and you may find that the meatballs start to disintegrate a little if you cook it too long – but there are worse things in life…!

Meatballs cooking

One final thing to add is to encourage you to include the anchovies even if you do not like them (either specifically or fish in general). It is such a small amount, and they really just act to season the meat, rather than adding an overall fishy taste. Also – an apology, because I totally forgot to take a picture of the finished product! We were just so hungry by the time everything was ready, we had devoured it before I remembered about taking a photo. To make up for this, here’s a shot of the delicious meatball sandwich I made with the leftovers… That’s right, six weeks in the States and I think it’s totally acceptable to have a load of tomatoey meatball goodness in a sandwich.

Meatball sandwich

Spaghetti and meatballs

Adapted from Angela Hartnett’s recipe for The Guardian

Serves 4

  • 200g/7oz white bread – crusts removed
  • Milk – 100-200ml (enough to soak the bread)
  • 500g/17oz minced beef
  • 250g/9oz minced pork
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 red or green chili, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp grated parmesan, plus more to serve
  • 4 anchovies, finely chopped
  • 2 400g/14oz tins chopped tomato
  • 100ml red or white wine (optional)
  • Approx 1tbsp olive oil
  • Salt & pepper
  • 400g Spaghetti

Start by making the tomato sauce. Heat a splash of the olive oil in a saucepan, and add half of the onion, garlic and chili. Allow to cook over a gentle heat until cooked but not brown. Add the tinned tomatoes and wine if using, season with salt and pepper, and allow the sauce to cook gently, uncovered, while you prepare the meatballs.

Place the bread in a bowl and cover with milk. In a large bowl, combine the meats, onion, garlic, chili, anchovies and parmesan, and season well with salt and pepper. Squeeze the excess liquid from the bread, and add this to the mix in the bowl. Mix well until all ingredients are combined – you can use a spoon, but it’s easiest to use your hands.

Roll the mix into small balls – I usually aim for slightly smaller than golf balls. Heat a frying pan over a medium heat, and brown the meatballs on all sides – do this in batches if needed, do not crowd the pan otherwise the meat will steam rather than brown. Once brown, remove the meatballs to a plate while you finish browning the remainder.

Add the browned meatballs to the tomato sauce, and stir gently until the meatballs are coated in sauce. Allow to cook for around 15-20 minutes, until the meat is cooked through. Cook the spaghetti according to packet instructions, and serve topped with the meatballs and tomato sauce, and some grated parmesan.